ClassAction: City is art history students’ laboratory  

Trek across the island leads them back through Montreal’s history

By Karen Herland

Chinatown, the Quartier des Spectacles, the Garment District, the Old Port, Little Italy – this is just a partial list of some of the districts, old and new, to be found along St. Lawrence Blvd. How these districts develop, and what they replace is a major theme of art history’s Architecture and Urbanism in Montreal.

The course teaches students about Montreal’s history, culture, architecture and design by walking different routes. Using the Main for the first tour makes perfect sense, it was declared a heritage site in 2002.

“The Main represents a cross-section of the city. It’s number zero for east/west addresses and it symbolizes the linguistic divide,” said Jean Bélisle, the art history professor who offers the course every year.

Students, many from art history and urban planning, vie for the nearly 100 spaces in the course each year. One student acknowledged she’d finally got her slot after three years of trying.

Bélisle warned the students to keep pace since the intention was to follow the Main from the St. Lawrence to Rivière des Prairies. Including some side trips, students covered 12 km in four hours with only one stop at the Jean Talon Market. Over the term, students will cover 40.9 km with trips devoted to Nuns’ Island, early suburbs, Sault-au-Récollect and the Lachine Canal. Popular as the class is, it is not for the faint of heart.

Those prepared to take the plunge were treated to a pastiche of information using the street as a departure point for multiple conversations.

Students got a history lesson through the traces of the wall that surrounded the original fortified city (just south of St. Antoine St.), as well as the site of the city’s first film screening in 1904 (a colourful building in Chinatown). Up north, near Sauriol, sits a residential community built during the post-war baby boom.

As for architecture, a storefront below Sherbrooke St. represents one of the first uses of cast iron to allow more picture window and less brick in a façade. A bit further north, the Godin Building used reinforced concrete to somewhat whimsical ends. That same material, when used for the green-painted Vineberg Building at Duluth, simply mimics more traditional cut stone.

Students take note as art history professor Jean Bélisle (right) describes the cultural importance of the Monument National. Magnifying glass

Students take note as art history professor Jean Bélisle (right) describes the cultural importance of the Monument National.

Meanwhile, a frothy terra cotta-faced 1911 construction just below Rachel is an example of prefabrication that became popular at that era. Architects would order the pieces from a distributor, piecing together the columns, windows and archways as per their plan. (For another example, closer to home, check out the 1912 façade of the Royal George building, preserved on the Bishop St. face of the LB Building).

Similarly, the city hall of the former municipality of St-Louis-de-Mile-End, at Laurier, exemplifies the French Renaissance style that had a heyday in the late 1890s when Canadian Pacific adopted that look for their hotels across the country. The imported fairy-tale castle look enjoyed a vogue as a “Canadian” architecture.

Repurposing buildings was also a theme of the walk. A former bank near Rachel is now an alternative funeral home, featuring a café and library. And the church at St. Zotique has become a condo development. Though Bélisle questioned the resources necessary to make such a radical shift in space and place.

The waves of early immigration along the Main traced by Chinatown, the Jewish quarter, the Portuguese park and Little Italy are well-known and documented. (See the Journal, June 14, 2007, for one noteworthy example). Bélisle delved further, describing the Monument National, below Ste. Catherine St. as the first community centre for the Francophone population which did double duty as an early site of Yiddish theatre at the turn of the last century.

Economic history was demonstrated by the tell-tale yellow-brick used for make-work constructions initiated by the city during the great depression. The Schubert baths at Bagg St., and the municipal buildings on the west side of Jean Talon Market are typical examples. Earlier in the tour, Bélisle also pointed out the 12-storey apartments of the Habitations Jeanne-Mance, erected during the “dark age of politics in Quebec.” Maurice Duplessis bulldozed the old neighbourhood under the pretext that removing the buildings would erase crime and poverty.

On the other end of the spectrum is Daniel Langlois’ software-generated millions funded ExCentris, the new media centre at Milton, and the upscale restaurants and shops that surround it.

Surprises along the route included a WWII munitions plant tucked behind the manufacturing centres along Chabanel and the home where Bélisle was born just a few blocks from the northern shore. Even after the official tour was over, students were shown the abandoned location of the former Iraqi Consulate (closed in 1990 when George Bush (Sr.) declared war on Iraq) on their way back to the metro and either their next class or well-deserved nap.


Concordia University