Published in the Montreal Gazette on January 10, 2015
Côté Street is a short Montreal road with a long history. It is found one block west of St. Urbain between de la Gauchetière and Viger Avenue, although it originally ran as far south as Craig (today, St. Antoine Street). That which remains is on the periphery of Chinatown, immediately south of Complexe Guy Favreau.
The tiny artery opened in the early nineteenth century on the lands of one Gabriel Cotté, a wealthy independent fur trader and a founding member of the Beaver Club, who died in Montreal in February of 1795. In his honour, it was originally designated Cotté Street but in 1893, for some unknown reason, the civic authorities dropped one ‘t’ producing the moniker we are familiar with today.
Despite the loss of half of its extent to the speedy construction of the Palais des congrès in the 1980’s, there remain to this day two nineteenth century structures of note on Côté Street.
The first is found flush on the southeast corner of Côté and de la Gauchetière Streets. The rectangular shaped, four- storey building, topped off with 11 classic dormer windows, dates from 1826. It was erected by a liberal society that believed in the creation of a non-denominational educational provision for working class children of both of the city’s principal language groups. The edifice was paid for with private donations along with grants from the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada. Its final cost was £1510.
Styled the British and Canadian Free School, the facility was designed, gratis, by none other than James O’Donnell, the Irish-American architect who was already in Montreal overseeing the planning and eventual construction of Notre Dame Church. The cornerstone for the Côté Street school structure was put in place on October 17, 1826.
In its first year, the instructional institution accommodated some 196 boys and 79 girls. There was an even mix of French – speaking and English – speaking children, from both the Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths. Initially, it was considered a great success.
A decade later, the facility (and all of Montreal) lived through the challenging period of the 1837-38 Rebellions. The number of ‘Canadian’ (francophone) children attending the charity school plummeted as the institution faced its first truly difficult phase. Private contributions also began to decline
With the passage of time, the building was acquired in 1866 by the Protestant Board of School Commissioners, which continued to administer the educational space until 1894 when it ultimately disappears from the city’s directories.
Below, the former British Canadian School
The other edifice of significant historical interest on Côté Street is found immediately south of the old British and Canadian Free School. Today, it is home to the Chinese Family Service of Greater Montreal but in the middle of the nineteenth century it was, in fact, a church.
Initially dubbed the Free Church Cotté Street, the massive structure was considered to be “the largest and finest Presbyterian church building of its day in the city.” The neo-classical house of worship first opened to the public on Sunday, May 16, 1847, in an area that was considered to be “most respectable and quite uptown.” The church was said to hold 1000 congregants.
Below, the only known image of the facade of the Cotté Street Free Church
All that remains of the original edifice today that reflects the fact that it was at one time an ecclesiastical structure are eight arched windows running the full elevation of both of the side walls. They are easily visible in a famous photo taken in 1870 from one of the towers of Notre Dame Church.
Below, 1870 photo (side view) of the Cotté Street Free Church, as seen from Notre Dame Church
A quarter of a century after its 1847 opening, for various reasons, the congregation of the Free Church Cotté Street started looking around for another location to construct a new, even more impressive free church. Subsequently, on March 10, 1878, Crescent Street Presbyterian Church opened, making redundant the old Cotté Street sanctuary, which was quickly sold thereafter.
Wing Noodles, Limited, Quebec’s leading oriental food producer, now owns both the British and Canadian Free School building and the adjacent Free Church edifice.
So although the two historic structures have entirely different vocations in 2015, they still survive in a way as silent witnesses to a bygone Montreal era.