Tag Archives: Historical Photos

A Thousand Words for this City in Time

Aerial perspective of the City of Montreal, ca. 1963 - Archives de Montréal
Aerial perspective of the City of Montreal, ca. 1962 РArchives de Montr̩al

I don’t know for certain but I’m guessing this shot was taken in the summer of 1962 or 1963.

It fascinates me because it shows our city at a crucial moment of transition.

Look closely at this photograph and think about what you don’t see.

No Bonaventure Expressway. No Ville Marie Expressway. No Métro. No Expo. No Tour de la Bourse nor Chateau Champlain.

And consider what you do see. Large neighbourhoods now lost to time; the Red Light, Griffintown, Goose Village, Faubourg à m’lasse.

This is Montreal right before the slum clearance gets thrown into full swing, before the era of the wrecking ball. Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance has already been built but despite it’s arguable success as a housing project, would never be replicated in our city. There were many other massive, somewhat utopian housing projects intended for downtown Montreal, but the few that were ultimately realized, like Habitat 67, would wind up condos auctioned off to the highest bidder.

For many this was not a particularly good time to live in Montreal, even if the economy was arguably stronger and there were greater local opportunities. For far too many, this photo is of a moment right before mass expropriations and the intentional destruction of urban neighbourhoods in the presumed name of progress.

Dorchester Boulevard has been widened by this point and serves notice of the next phase of apparent urban renewal – the highways. You can see the blacktop cutting a nice wide swath through the downtown, reminiscent of the Lachine Canal further south – neat and boxy, the next commercial artery. Dorchester was widened at the expense of its former estates and grand churches throughout the 1950s, expanded from a quiet and meandering tree-lined residential street into a stately minor highway.

The construction of the Bonaventure, Decarie and Ville Marie expressways further hampered the livability of the city for a considerable period of time, and we’re fortunate that there are plans in place to a) eliminate the Bonaventure expressway viaduct downtown and b) continue covering over the Ville Marie. In time we can only hope the remaining exposed sections of urban highway that have so thoroughly divided the city are eliminated as barriers. It’s a crucial component of our city’s urban rehabilitation.

This is Montreal at a crossroads. The end of the North American colonial metropolis, the beginnings of both the international and the self-conscious city.

The city you’re looking at was much smaller, geographically, than it is today, and when this photo was taken in 1962 the city’s population was only about 1.2 million people. The population of Montreal would grow to nearly 1.3 million people by mid-decade, but then depopulated by about 300,000 people over the course of the next thirty years. The population of Montreal didn’t surpass the high water mark of 1966 until 2006, and only as a result of the municipal reorganization and forced annexations of some populous on-island suburbs.

The reason I point this out is because this photograph represents the kind of built environment that developed to accommodate a city population that was once far more tightly packed at its core.

Consider this. Were you to get in an airplane and fly to the same spot today and take another photograph and compare the two, you’d see there were once many more buildings in this city, though today we have many more tall and otherwise large buildings occupying massive pieces of urban real estate. In the photo above you see a downtown where commerce, retail, residences, industries and institutions existed practically one atop another. Today you’d see a largely corporate sector that in some respects has very little to do with what Montreal actually is. Industry and residential areas have been pushed to the periphery.

Zooming in you can see Montreal’s downtown was once filled with a great variety of smaller office buildings, not to mention traditional triplexes, in places we no longer associate with small businesses or neighbourhoods. Much of the human scale architecture, the fundamentals of city-building, was gutted in the name of civic improvement, and worse, was done so in an area of exceptional architectural variety and vitality.

But such as it is, it’s history. What’s done is done. We would be wise not to develop our city so haphazardly and inconsiderately in the future.

Now, all that said…

Looking at this photograph I also see just how far we’ve come. In the thirty years after this photo was taken downtown Montreal transformed into a massive parking lot and the urban vitality of the city suffered. All too often whole blocks were wiped out before the intended replacement project had even gained funding (Overdale immediately comes to mind). Complexe Guy-Favreau, as an example, was an open pit for much of the 1970s. At one point the intersection of McGill College and Boul. de Maisonneuve was four parking lots and the Champ de Mars was a parking lot too (before someone had the bright idea to turn it back into a commanding public green and local historical site). Demolition teams tore strips through the cityscape to install Métro lines and highways, obliterating nearly everything in their paths with no concern paid to the negative effects it would have on local livability.

We don’t develop like this anymore, and it seems as though a lot of recent attention – broadly speaking over the course of the last twenty years or so – has been placed on rehabilitation and rejuvenation, both of the core and the first ring suburbs (like NDG, St. Henri, the Shaughnessy Village, Plateau and Mile End).

There’s no doubt in my mind Montreal is a superior city to live in today than at any point since this photo was taken. The city has more to offer its citizens today than it ever has, and I hope we soon start to realize this. For as great as past achievements may have been, they do not compare to what our accrued potential has made us capable of.

Mid-town Montréal, 1962

Apologies for the bad pic quality - found this at the Montréal Pool Room last Winter with Nelson, Isabelle and Gen

So I found this great aerial shot of Montréal’s “new” central business district while munching on poutine and ‘steamés’ at the Montréal Pool Room back two winters ago after a night of dancing at Igloofest – good times and highly recommended. There’s nothing more satisfying than boogying down to the electric boogaloo with tens of thousands of other Montrealers defiant to the last not to be brought down by Winter’s icy catatonia. Who says Winter’s for hibernation? Not I good sir, not I.

Here we can see the new Montréal, springing up along a new commercial artery. In a happy coincidence, the aerial rights over the Mount Royal Tunnel pit were developed at pretty much the same time as Dorchester Street (now Boul. René-Lévesque) was being enlarged into a major urban boulevard. Moreover, the old Windsor Hotel had suffered a partial fire in 1957 which had left a large plot of land open for development at Peel. Thus, between 1958 and 1962 Montrealers were presented with an interesting visual treat – the construction of three skyscrapers simultaneously and the complete and total transformation of the centre of the city, as Place Ville Marie (centre), the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, CN Headquarters (to the East of Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral) and the first ICAO Building were built atop the former ‘tunnel-pit’.

The skyscrapers in this picture, from left to right, are the CIBC Building (1962), Sun Life Building (1931), 1 PVM (1962) and the former CIL House (1962 – currently Telus Tower). Notice the two parking lots at the bottom centre of the photograph. The one at left would become the site of the Chateau Champlain and Place du Canada building in 1966-1967, while the one to the right would remain undeveloped until 1988. Ergo, if you can imagine walking down Peel towards St-Antoine in 1964, and were looking Southeast across these lots, you would have seen the impressive, elegant Tour de la Bourse rising from a mass of old victorian buildings. I believe there’s a five second sequence demonstrating this exact perspective somewhere halfway through Luc Bourdon’s Memories of Angels.

Also missing is the Terminal Tower, which would be built immediately to the East of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in 1966, filling up most of the block and completing one of the most seen perspectives of Montréal. It is this section of the city which has stood-in for New York City more times than I can imagine, precisely because it is one of the few areas of the urban environment where ‘the cavern effect’ can be effectively demonstrated. And unlike what you would find in NYC, our version is less overwhelming, what with our building height restrictions and what all (jesus, what’s with my interior monologue today?)

So what can I say – go take a walk why not?

Historical Perspectives of Montréal

The Laurentian Hotel (1948-1978) and the old bus terminus - not the work of the author.

Facing East on Dorchester Boulevard, late 1950s, early 1960s. You’ll notice the recently completed Queen Elizabeth Hotel in the background and the bus depot in the foreground. Pic seems to have been taken either from Drummond or Mountain. What’s fascinating here is that the Laurentian Hotel, which at one point would have anchored Place du Canada much like the Sun Life Building or Windsor Hotel would have anchored Dominion Square immediately to the North. Further, up to the demolition of the Laurentian in 1978, this area would have had four major hotels facing the combined Dorchester Square – the Queen E, Windsor, Chateau Champlain and Laurentian, with the Sheraton nearby. The Laurentian wasn’t terribly attractive on the outside, as you might be able to see in this photograph, though the interiors were apparently quite well done.

It would take nine years for the Canadian Pacific project to re-develop their lands adjacent to Windsor Station, and by 1987 the Laurentian Bank/Lavalin project had been considerably scaled back. The CPR wasn’t nearly as successful at developing their lands as was CN; quite a pity too, given that some of the shelved CP plans called for major renovations and some epic construction in this area. Seems as if they got the shaft, and that may account for CP’s re-location to Calgary in 1997.

Phillips Square, late 1950s - early 1960s. Not the work of the author.

And this is Phillips Square around the same time, facing Northwest across the square from near the centre, with Christ Church Cathedral taking up most of the frame. Consider that this area isn’t nearly as green as it is today. Check this old Kondiaronk article for more percent pictures of the square. You can see that the cathedral now serves as a green space and urban park inasmuch as Phillips Square does. Notice as well the lack of concentrated vendors here (as street vendors were the norm back then), and the planters we have today were back then public toilets – those little towers are in fact ventilation shafts. Apparently you can still access the old toilets if you know what manhole cover to pry open. I wouldn’t recommend it, probably smells quite bad down there, and will doubtless quickly get you arrested.

Westmount Train Station, early 1970s - not the work of the author.

A view of Westmount Train Station and the Glen Yards, back before the Superhospital. With the closure of Westmount Train Station in the 1980s, Westmount’s public transit access dwindled to a handful of bus lines and a long tunnel to Atwater Métro. Vendome station, much like Atwater, is physically close to Westmount though still in the City of Montreal. It’s unfortunate that this station will almost assuredly never operate as intended again, lest there is sufficient traffic heading West from Westmount. Pity. To my knowledge it lies completely abandoned at Victoria and Saint Catherine’s West, almost within sight of Vendome Station. It’s bizarre that the commuter trains don’t disembark at Westmount Station – which is a proper train station, and have some sort of covered walkway to Vendome and the bus terminus there. It may be wise to try and reduce congestion so close to Vendome and give commuters the advantage of utilizing the train station.

Something tells me that this whole area will be the focal point of year’s worth of renovation work and re-design. Guess we’ll have to wait.

New Photos Page – Montreal in 1900!

Dominion Square and the Windsor Hotel, circa 1900

Check back soon for more pictures of Montreal from the past!

The first series of pictures are from around 1900 and can be accessed on the Montreal, circa 1900 page under “Photographs”. Or you can click here.

I’ll be working on another series of pics from the 60s, 70s and 80s and post soon.

Cheers, hope you enjoy!

Taylor –

Historical Perspectives on the City – Bishop & Ste-Catherine’s

The view from yesteryear, Ste-Cat's & Bishop, which was whited-out of this pic - not the work of the author, but apparently the work of a militant anti-Anglo xenophobe

My guess is that this pic was taken back in the early-mid fifties, though someone with an eagle-eye for cars would know better than I.

Is it me or are there a fair number of buildings still standing along this stretch?

Doesn’t seem like its changed too much, save for what you’d see in the background.


Disused rail line, Port of Montréal near Moreau Street, facing West - 1954: credit to Vicky Robinson

When I first came across this photograph I thought instinctively that was from a very early period, 1890s or thereabouts. Closer inspection revealed the Jacques-Cartier Bridge in the background… and then I realized the date included with the rest of the pertinent info. Oh well, only spent ten minutes trying to figure out how old it was.

I can’t tell whether it’s a power line or a telephone line, but either way it was clear rail was hardly the priority. I suppose I could have just shown you a recent picture of the Bell Centre to indicate my personal malaise at the state of rail transit in the city from which once all rail led.

What do you think about rail access in Montréal? Will the Train-de-l’Est spurn additional AMT development? Will we ever build a high-speed link from here to anywhere else? And what about the long-talked about high-speed train to NYC? It’s been on the books for twenty some-odd years!

Is this picture an appropriate metaphor for how our city deal with new technologies? How apt is it?

The longer I look at this picture the more it seems to mean to me…