Published in the Montreal Gazette on January 3, 2015
An abiding fascination with both local history and the Buchanan Mansion on Sherbrooke Street East led me recently to Sotheby’s real estate agent David Malka. The celebrated, venerable property is for sale and Malka, 26, is tasked with finding a buyer. Although not in that category, the agent nevertheless kindly offered me a private visit.
Located between Hotel de Ville and de Bullion Streets, the edifice is surely one of the oldest structures on all of Sherbrooke Street. It was also, some time ago, one of the most prestigious.
Constructed in 1837 for Judge Alexander Buchanan, Q.C., the house is favoured with a profusion of history. Designed by renowned Montreal architect John Ostell, it is a jewel of Quebec heritage. One of the architect’s early works in this city; he later followed it with the Custom House in Old Montreal, the Grand Séminaire also on Sherbrooke Street, and the Old Court House on Notre Dame. There were as well many other important Ostell contributions to Montreal’s mid-nineteenth century modest skyline.
When the Buchanan Mansion was erected, Sherbrooke Street was essentially the countryside. In fact, there was virtually nothing except the odd farmhouse in the vicinity of the illustrious building for at least the first decade of its existence.
Initially known as Cote à Baron, Sherbrooke Street was rarely mentioned in the early editions of Lovell’s City Directories. By 1860, however, the situation had changed dramatically as the pivotal road rapidly expanded in both directions.
Ostell planned the Buchanan property in a Georgian manor style. It was a grand and comfortable twenty-room home consisting of some 8636 square feet of living space. The extensive estate upon which it was originally situated extended southward to what is currently Ontario Street. Today, its dimensions are considerably reduced, resting on a plot of 7371 square feet.
Buchanan, a distinguished lawyer and in his day leader of the Montreal bar, lived in his beautiful colonial style residence until 1849 at which time he moved about a kilometre away to the fashionable Cornwall Terrace on St. Denis Street. This magnificent block, housing some of the city’s leading citizens, including John Ostell himself, was later totally destroyed in the Great Fire of 1852.
Below, Alexander Buchanan
It was at this home at 7 Cornwall Terrace that Buchanan died on November 5, 1851. He was only 53 years of age.
Below, the ruins of Cornwall Terrace after the Great Fire of July 8, 1852
There is some conjecture that the multilingual and scholarly Alexander Buchanan may have made the move to adjacent St. Denis Street for the convenience of another person.
The burning of the parliament on Youville Square by enraged Tories, and the general pandemonium associated with the 1849 Rebellion Losses’ Bill, exacted a heavy toll on the health of Sir Benjamin D’Urban, “Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s Forces in the Canadas.” In fact, he died a month later in Montreal in Donegana’s Hotel in May of 1849.
D’Urban’s replacement, Lieutenant-General Sir William Rowan, took over command a few days later. He quickly leased the Sherbrooke Street villa from Buchanan and set up his military headquarters in the lush building.
Rowan’s period of time serving in this town was another one of turbulence, to say the least. In July of 1852, a quarter of the city was destroyed by fire, leaving 10,000 Montrealers homeless. Miraculously, no one was killed as a direct result of the historic inferno.
Less than a year later, the town was rocked again; this time by sectarian violence. The conflict, known as the Gavazzi Riot, led to the eventual deaths of approximately 40 Montrealers who were shot by the British military while they tried to re-establish order outside a church on Beaver Hall Hill. Sir William Rowan heard the gunfire at his rented manor on Sherbrooke Street and hurried to the bloody scene on horseback. His very presence, and that of his traditional uniformed entourage, reassured many.
Then, in 1854, Montreal was struck with yet another cholera epidemic. This time, 1400 people died as the epidemic spread uncontrollably throughout the city.
When Rowan left Montreal in 1855, the Buchanan family sold the property to Masson, Bruyere, and Thomas, general merchants in the city. Blessed with an ideal location, the elegant edifice continued to be leased out to high-ranking British military personnel, including Lieutenant-General Sir William Eyre and Sir John Michel.
As the years past, however, the notable domain changed vocations dramatically.
In 1889, and continuing for a 13-year period, Alexander Buchanan’s old home was rented by Dr. Emmanuel – Persillier Lachapelle, one of the great campaigners behind the founding of Notre Dame Hospital in 1880. Physician, editor, professor, educational and hospital administrator, Lachapelle continued to inhabit his Sherbrooke Street residence until 1902, when it was taken over by the adjacent Sisters of the Good Shepherd who had purchased the property in 1896.
Below, Buchanan House, 1911
It was, in fact, Les Soeurs du Bon-Pasteur who owned the building the longest. The good sisters used Buchanan’s now timeless home for a novitiate for young girls destined to become nuns. They even built a tunnel from it to their nearby monastery on Sherbrooke and St. Dominique Streets so that the young women would not be distracted by worldly temptations. The passageway no longer exists.
The religious order sold the famous property in 2003 at which point it became the focal point for the erection of yet another upmarket condominium project immediately to the west of the Georgian manor. Part of that scheme was the restoration of this 1837 patrimonial treasure, which is currently for sale for an imposing $3,200,000.
The Buchanan Mansion today survives remarkably in tact from its 19th century origins. At the grand entrance, complete with the requisite portico, the classic high ceilings give both the impression of stature and grandeur. Plaster mouldings, a mixture of both original and reproductions, also add an unmistakable Victorian appeal to the august edifice.
With a hip roof topping the brick-covered structure, the overall sense of the relentless symmetry that typifies Georgian design is unmistakable to all.
Below, the Buchanan House, October 31, 2014