Old Montreal’s heritage is far from frozen in time; it is diverse, alive, and can be experienced every day. Discover portraits of timeless buildings, each one a page of history proposed by Heritage Montreal as part of a special collaboration with the SDC Old Montreal.
Regular visitors to Old Montreal know and love the “Parc Éphémère,” located at the junction of Saint-Jean, Notre-Dame West and De l’Hôpital streets. This oasis of tranquillity in the heart of the old city was developed in 2010 on a lot left vacant when the “pigeon-hole” parking garage that formerly stood there was demolished. From this vantage point, one can rediscover three buildings whose architectural languages reflect very distinct styles.
Think of the Sun Life insurance company, and you instinctively think of its wedding-cake-style head office on Dorchester Square. Before moving to that iconic building, though, the offices of Sun Life were in the original financial district of the city, on Notre-Dame Street, a thoroughfare that dates back to 1692. Built in 1890–1891 to plans by Scottish-born Montreal architect Robert Findlay, this “junior skyscraper” in English buff sandstone is topped by a corner turret that features a clock. The entrance hall is ornate, with luxurious materials that were meant to impress well-to-do customers—not to mention justify the high rents, as several floors were designed to be leased to other companies.
With business expanding significantly, Sun Life bought the building next door, the Waddell, in 1897. It is notable for its multi-hued cladding of buff sandstone and red granite. Its eclectic style features a blend of elements, borrowing as much from the Victorian architecture of Britain as from the Gothic style of the Middle Ages, as seen in the flattened pointed arches, and even Ancient Greece, exemplified by the column capitals on the ground floor. The company occupied most of the property until its new head office opened on Metcalfe Street in 1918. In 1981–82, both the Sun Life and Waddell buildings were restored and converted into office co-ownership by architects Papineau and O’Keefe.
Built in 1912–13 to plans by architect Kenneth Guscotte Rea, the Lewis Building sports most of the features of Montreal skyscrapers of the early 20th century, with its 10 stories, steel framing, and flat roof. Unmistakably showing the influence of the Chicago School on Montreal architecture, the Lewis Building also exudes a Beaux-Arts spirit, with Neo-Tudor decorative elements that give it a special, almost Gothic flavour. The four-centred arches, also known as Tudor arches, pillars resembling buttresses that rise to the 8th floor, and ornamentation that includes grimacing gargoyles, make this building one of a kind. Originally occupied by insurance companies, the building later housed the head offices of the Cunard Steamship Company, Ltd., and then various maritime trade businesses. Restored and renovated in the early 1990s, it is now home to offices and retail locations, including an outlet of Montreal’s ultra-chic Maison Privée barbershop chain.
Photos: Geneviève Giguère