Published in the Montreal Gazette on October 11, 2014
On April 21, 1891, Henry Morgan moved his dry goods business to a new setting situated on the northeast corner of Union Avenue and St. Catherine Street. In classic Richardsonian Romanesque style, Morgan spared no effort in constructing what was considered by many to be the finest building devoted to the retail business in North America. The final cost was a remarkable $400,000, or well over $10,000,000 in today’s money.
Designed by Scottish architect, John Pierce Hill (who also drew up the plans for the Wells Richardson Building on Mountain Street opposite the Bell Centre), imported high – quality Scottish red sandstone that was used throughout on the lavish four-storey façade of the elegant edifice.
However, one factor Henry Morgan hadn’t counted on in spending so freely on the celebrated structure was Montreal’s municipal property tax rate. So angry was the Morgan family with the taxes they were asked to pay that the Montreal Star on May 30th, 1903, reported the department store was considering replacing all the opulent exterior sandstone with plain brick! Thankfully, common sense prevailed although the contentious issue of “buildings of high cost and architectural pretension” was once again raised in that same newspaper, this time in 1910.
Known by most until the 1930’s as ‘Colonial House’, the daring 1891 project was later seen as a watershed for the development of St. Catherine Street into the city’s vibrant commercial quarter. In fact, Morgan’s gamble proved quite profitable in the end.
In 1923, the department store expanded northward with the addition of an eight – storey structure of somewhat simpler taste. In order to complete the move, a number of existing edifices that were standing in the way had to be purchased, only to be rapidly demolished. Hugh Graham (Lord Atholstan), owner of the Montreal Star, held out for more than a year before he got his price – a whopping $250,000 or three and a quarter million dollars in today’s currency. However, Atholstan’s building was not torn down but rather moved 300 feet up Union Avenue!
Montrealers of a certain age will all recall the Steinberg’s grocery store that was found in the basement of the expanded Morgan’s property. First established in that prized location in 1952, the supermarket was one of the very few found in the city centre at the time. It was accessed by a side entrance on Union Avenue.
The department store expanded on a third occasion, this time in the 1960’s. The Hudson Bay Company purchased the retailer outright in the early part of that same decade and then invested heavily in the store’s restoration and further enlargement northward. Indeed, by the time of the official opening of Expo World’s Fair in April of 1967, the now historic outlet (known still as Morgan’s until June of 1972) had stealthily moved all the way up to de Maisonneuve Boulevard.
Below, the completed building at Union and St. Catherine Streets circa. 1960
It has been said that the impressive foundation upon which the original, late nineteenth century department store was constructed was itself steeped in history. In fact, the underpinning of the store was the same as that used for the typical Montreal greystone residences that, before 1890, lined, the north side of St. Catherine Street between Union and Aylmer. The stones for the groundwork of these homes were taken from the site of the Canadian Parliament on Youville Square that was destroyed by fire in April of 1849. They were used again, only this time for the foundation of Henry Morgan’s uptown shop.
Totally unnoticed by most are the four brass friction plates still found by the St. Catherine Street doors. Certainly original, the plates were employed by patrons striking their Lucifer matches as they left the nineteenth century department store. Identified in English only with the word ‘matches’, men (very few women smoked publicly at the time) would light up as they stepped from the store onto the street.
Below, friction plate found by the exit door in the front of the building