I often wonder what Richard Philbin would think of his old street now. Philbin, a plasterer by profession, was the first individual ever recorded in Montreal’s Lovell’s Directories to be living on Stanley Street. The year was 1856 when the contractor was reported as residing in Inkerman Cottage, at civic number 112, just south of Ste. Catherine. And all indications point to the fact that Richard Philbin and family had the street all to themselves back in the day.
A great deal has happened on that spirited and historic Montreal artery in the 160 years that have passed since then. Some good happenings; some not so good.
The relatively narrow thoroughfare originally ran from Rue de la Gauchetière (then, St. Janvier; later Osborne) to Ste. Catherine Street. It was first named in 1845 after Edward Smith-Stanley, Sir Robert Peel’s Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. Smith-Stanley was the father of Frederick Arthur Stanley, 6th governor-general of Canada, and after whom the Stanley Cup was branded.
In the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries, Stanley Street was home to at least three ecclesiastic edifices; four if you include Emmanuel Congregational Church (1878-1907), whose portico technically stood on Ste. Catherine but at the intersection with Stanley.
The oldest of the three structures, Stanley Street Presbyterian Church, was situated on the northeast corner of its namesake, and Cypress Street. First opened in 1874, the congregation occupied the building until selling it in 1913, and moving to Westmount.
Stanley Street Presbyterian Church, 1910 (Massicotte Collection)
Initially, the purchaser and developer had envisioned a magnificent terra cotta, ten-storey hotel project on the site but when the financing fell through the edifice was leased for another ten years to parishioners of the High African American Methodist Episcopal Church.
The house of worship was finally demolished around 1925 and today, some 91 years later, this prime piece of city centre real estate, astoundingly, still stands vacant.
Meanwhile, in 1892, across the road from Stanley Presbyterian Church, Temple Emanuel opened, one of two synagogues to be found on the street in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. The other, located on the east side but north of Ste. Catherine, was the Spanish and Portuguese, which was perhaps the oldest Jewish congregation in Canada. Both temples were long ago razed, regulars having moved elsewhere in the city.
Not surprisingly, the most timeworn part of Stanley Street has also the most colourful history. In this case, that stretch is found between Dorchester (today, René Lévesque Boulevard) and Ste. Catherine Street.
The initial structure (other than Richard Philbin’s surely modest residence) to be erected on that portion of Stanley Street was the celebrated Victoria Skating Rink. Officially inaugurated on Christmas Eve, 1862, the enormous edifice, “one of the first and biggest indoor rinks to be built in North America,” which ran an entire city block, was, on March 3, 1875, host to what is believed to have been the first organized indoor hockey game ever played.
The popular Victorian-era stadium was used in the off-season for a variety of events running the gamut from exhibitions staged by the Montreal Horticultural Society to a variety of musical performances, such as a benefit concert for Notre Dame Hospital held in 1890 that 6000 contributors attended, and at which famous Quebec soprano Emma Albani performed.
Frequented by prominent Montrealers for over half a century, the interior of the illustrious skating rink appears in more than one composite photo assembled by Montreal’s renowned William Notman.
However, by the early 1900’s, this iconic Stanley Street structure began to fall into disrepair and new owners used it increasingly for garage purposes in the spring, summer, and fall. The final hockey game of any significance was played under its ageing roof on March 3, 1925 – the fiftieth anniversary of that very first game ever contested anywhere indoors.
Today, the arena survives as a garage, but is easily identifiable by it hockey rink size dimensions that run all the way to Drummond Street.
Immediately north of the old Victoria Skating Rink is the Stanley Street jewel of the block, the Maison Charles B. Falardeau. Situated at what is today 1212-1216 Stanley, this rather ornate building was home to one Charles B. Falardeau, manager of the Canada Industrial Company in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century.
Falardeau and his wife, Angelique, lived in the home from the day of its completion in 1896, along with his daughter and son-in-law, the distinguished mining engineer Fritz Cirkel. With Cirkel’s death in 1914, the gingerbread-like residence suddenly became abandoned and remained so throughout the First World War.
Currently, though 120 years old, the façade of the structure still retains many of its eclectic, Victorian features, including four seemingly decorative ‘engaged collonnettes’ and a bow window. Its sloping mansard roof has also survived the years.
The dwelling has served many commercial purposes since the Falardeau family lived there all those years ago: hotel, confectionary store, cheese shop, furniture showroom. Indeed, immediately after the Second World War, it even acted for a ten-year period as home to the French Consulate in the city, as well as a school for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal.
Although the now aged structure is today the only late 19th century residence left on that particular section of the road, there were at one time many such interesting dwellings on both sides of the street.
Falardeau House, 2016
In the early 1870’s, seven Montreal greystones appeared on the west side of Stanley, immediate south of St. Catherine while another seven appeared on the east side in the early 1880’s, directly north of Stanley Street Presbyterian Church.
It was in one of those terrace homes in the early twentieth century that an individual, who went on to live a life of considerable notoriety, hunkered down for a few years in Montreal. The person in question was none other than Joachim von Ribbentrop, later diplomat and Foreign Minister for Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1945.
Ribbentrop, ever the adventurer, arrived in Montreal on “a fine autumn day” in 1910. He was just seventeen at the time.
From a chance encounter in Switzerland, he was acquainted with the beautiful daughter of Samuel Hamilton Ewing, a prominent Montreal financier of the day. Ewing, vice-president of the Molson Bank (later, absorbed by the Bank of Montreal) quickly found work for his young German visitor at the bank branch situated on the northeast corner of the intersection of Stanley and Ste. Catherine Streets (today, the building is home to an outlet of the women’s fashion store, La Senza). Fluent in both English and French, along with his native German, Ribbentrop was said to have been a most popular employee at his place of work.
Molson Bank Building (on the left) in 1930
Remarkably, while in this city, he boarded at the residence of Montrealers John and Christina Reid, who just happened to live in one of the Victorian greystones on the east side of Stanley Street, only moments from the Molson Bank. Reid’s was the second to last home from where the terrace came to an end at the Stanley Street Presbyterian Church.
Ribbentrop stayed in Montreal just long enough to appear on the 1911 Census of Canada. Census takers, some barely literate at the time, often had trouble transcribing names, particularly foreign ones. Ominously, Ribbentrop was recorded as Killerstrop instead of by his proper family name. He is also reported to have been five years older than he actually was.
Be all that as it may, the future Nazi politician quit his Stanley Street job with Molson’s Bank in 1912 but took up other tasks in various parts of Canada, including a stint on the construction site of the old Quebec Bridge at the provincial capital.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Ribbentrop left his Stanley Street room and Canada for good, rapidly returning to his native land via the initially neutral United States. Once back in Germany, he served in that country’s armed services during the bloody European conflict.
Many years later, Ribbentrop was executed after the Second World War for crimes committed during that savage confrontation.
Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentrop
By 1930, Stanley Street began to experience, like much of downtown Montreal, a change in its role in the city’s intriguing narrative. By the late 1920’s, early 1930’s, this west-end artery of distinctive greystones quickly evolved into one of the town’s vibrant after-hours hot spots. Indeed, it is with this flair that the street is still known today, although to a somewhat lesser extent.
One of the first entertainment venues to emerge on the street was the Carlton Club in 1927. It was quickly followed in 1930 by the Kit Kat Cabaret which continued its run at 1224 Stanley for a number of years. Right next door to the Kit Kat was found the Palais D’Or, a dance club ballroom that endured for well over a decade. Even a hackneyed, male-only drinking establishment popped up on the street in 1928. Indeed, the Regent Tavern survived until 1965 at its location on the corner of a lane, just south of Ste. Catherine.
Regent Tavern, 1264 Stanley
As the street’s reputation as a locale for live shows and other attractions grew, different nightclubs established in the area. In that regard, one address became, down through the years, very familiar to Montrealers who were in search of a good time. That was at civic number 1258, which is today home to the Chez Paree Gentlemen’s Club; a strange euphemism, if ever there were one, for a female strip bar.
There, in 1935, opened the Club Lido, which was quickly supplanted in 1938 by the very chic and popular Tic Toc Café, “a show every hour on the hour.” The Tic Toc was just one of an estimated 40 cabarets found in the city in the glory years of the late 1940’s, early 1950’s; a time in which Montreal was often described by many as being a wide open town. More than a few of those dazzling niteries were found on Stanley Street.
As the years passed, this modest thoroughfare also became home to more and more of the city’s gay community. After appearing very briefly on the street in 1950 and then mysteriously disappearing that same year, the Hawaiian Lounge resurfaced in 1967 as both a popular place for good music and lively drag shows.
Later, in 1973, the three-storey complex in which the Hawaiian Lounge had been located housed the celebrated Limelight Discothèque. Also attracting a mixed crowd, and said by many to have been second only to the then much talked about Studio 54 in New York City, the Limelight was the setting of many of the very best performers from the 1970’s – David Bowie, Gloria Gaynor, Grace Jones, Boule Noire, Van McCoy, James Brown, and numerous others.
Lime Light Discothèque, 1977
This popular disco dance club closed in 1981, only to re-open in 1997 for another four year run.
And, of course, no remark about the myriad of entertainment spots to be found down through the years on Stanley Street would be complete without a reference the Esquire Show Bar. Familiar to all Montrealers of a certain age, the Esquire (as it was known by most) saw some of the greatest talents of the post war period appear on its stage – Chubby Checker, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Tina Turner, Little Richard, Ray Charles, again to cite just a few. In a time well before the selfie, many a patron took advantage (and rightly so) of the club’s roaming photographer to have their image snapped for posterity while sitting at their table.
Situated at 1224 (the same location as the old Kit Kat Cabaret) and first opened in 1940, the Esquire Show Bar was for over thirty years an enchanting city tourist attraction unto itself. Sadly, the ravages of time closed the club in the early 1970’s, and the aged building in which it was located was eventually razed and replaced with a modern structure.
Stanley Street was also the site of a few happenings about which some Montrealers would rather forget. In 1946, for example, a notorious murder took place at 1244 Stanley, a killing that left the city reeling.
On a sunny, late afternoon summer day in July of that year, Harry Davis, a 48-year-old mobster and gambling kingpin, was shot to death in his bookmaking parlour on the west side of the road. Davis, who had only recently emerged from having served a lengthy prison sentence, quickly established himself in the post war period as the ‘edge man’ in Montreal, a kind of intermediary between the underworld and corrupt officials, including the police. He was shot several times during a heated conversation by a rival thug, Louis Bercovitch, who quickly escaped.
As Davis, bleeding profusely, was carried outside to an automobile on Stanley Street, hundreds of people had gathered to watch. Transported to a nearby hospital, he was declared DOA.
Sensing a gangland turf war was taking place, police made a heavy presence throughout the city that evening, and the ones that followed, particularly on Stanley Street where the crime scene was still under investigation. A few days later, over 5,000 curiosity seekers and racketeering figures showed up for Davis’ funeral on St. Urbain Street.
Gazette coverage of the murder of Harry Davis
Incredible as it might seem this tiny stretch of urban landscape set on the west side of Stanley, and essentially between Ste. Catherine and Cypress, has been for the last 85 years front and centre to much of this city’s clubbing and scintillating performance story. At its zenith in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, there were, adjacent to one another within its petite confines, close to a dozen or so diverse discothèques and bars, along with a number of restaurants.
Today, just south of Ste. Catherine Street, a good eye can still catch the name ‘Boy George’ etched into the sidewalk concrete, yet another silent witness to the importance of Stanley Street in times gone by in the entertainment chronicle of Montreal.
In 2016, while not quite the same as half a century ago, the setting is nonetheless home to a couple of nightclubs and numerous fine restaurants, still a great corner of the city for an evening out.
Now as to whether Richard Philbin would recognize his old mid 19th stomping grounds, I am not so certain.