Golden Age, Golden Mile
by Andrew London
MONTREAL – In the dead of winter, it is nice to think about what outdoor activities to plan for the coming summer. For residential architecture enthusiasts, a walking tour around Montreal’s Golden Square Mile could prove most stimulating, and tiring! This leafy and charming neighbourhood is situated on the steep hills near the summit of Mount Royal, an extinct volcano, and cascades down to the developed heart of the city with views out to the banks of the St. Lawrence. For generations, Montreal was the biggest and wealthiest city in Canada. The consolidated wealth and power of its élite is evident in its extravagant residential architecture. As time hasn’t been a sympathetic friend to much of architectural history, most are just memories. The few that remain are a magnificent reminder of a glorious world that now only exists within the protected walls and balustrades of these mansions.
I would suggest touring the Golden Mile over the course of two days, as there is just so much to see, and you’ll want to lump in a couple of museums, cafes, and vantage points en route. As the geographic boundaries are University Avenue to the east, Dorchester / Renée Levesque Blvd to the south, Côte-des-Neiges to the west, and des Pins to the north, it is quite easy to traverse the whole area on foot. Sherbrooke Street acts as an east /west division point because most of the streets below have become commercially developed and only a handful of homes remain here, while most remain to the north, interspersed among apartment houses. Sherbrooke is Montreal’s version of New York’s 5th Avenue. The streets between Sherbrooke and des Pins are quite steep as they make their ascent to the plateau of Mount Royal so bring good running shoes! Thus taking one day to conquer the streets north of Sherbrooke and another to see the area south of Sherbrooke, might be the easiest way to delineate one’s time.
Day one. Start on Sherbrooke Street at the marble clad Montreal Museum of Fine Art. It’s worth a peek inside the museum as well, before heading west as far as Côte-des-Neiges before turning north up the hill. Study the intricate and inventive Warren & Wetmore (from Grand Central Station NYC fame) designed Ritz Carlton, circa 1912, on the south side of the street. Take note of The Linton Apartments, The Chateaux Apartments, and the Acadia, all on the north side. These are unquestionably three of Canada’s finest examples of pre-war Apartment House architecture. As well, within this stretch of architecturally significant structures is the Stanford White designed Mount Royal Club, circa 1906. Walk up and down all 8 streets between Côte-des-Neiges and McTavish as these streets have the largest concentration of mansions today. Those that remain are dispersed in the shadows of mostly abrasive and utilitarian apartment houses. This isn’t to say certain blocks don’t maintain their original splendour: Dr. Penfield, between Côte-des-Neiges and Simpson, is intriguing because there are gorgeous townhomes on the north side of the street, while the south side is dotted with freestanding mansions sandwiched between brutalist apartment buildings, the most famous example being the Graham House at 1538 Dr. Penfield. The east side of du Musee Avenue, above Dr. Penfield is completely untouched, and the south side of des Pins remains mostly intact as well. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that no tour is complete without seeing these particular homes: The Raymond House, (1507 Docteur Penfield) which is the most elegant example of a Beaux Arts Petit Palais. One street above, the McConnell House, (1475 des Pins Ave W.) a massive Italian Renaissance Palazzo, sits on one of the largest lots in the city and wouldn’t look out of place in Tuscany. The Forget House (3685 du Musee Ave) is likely Canada’s only real example of an Hotel Particulier, and what a fine one it is! Towering above the Forget House, is the de Sola House (1374 des Pins Ave W.) an eight storey Moorish Revival house, one of the only exotic Victorian homes built in Montreal. Once you are already as high as des Pins Ave, you might as well continue to the top of Mount Royal Park, designed by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted (the same man who designed Central Park). A favourite activity of both locals and tourists is a sunset hike up to the Belvedere that crowns the park and Montreal’s highest point, where one can survey a panoramic view of the Golden Square Mile, the rest of the city below, the St. Lawrence seaway, and well into America: simply put, a truly magical way to end one’s day in Montreal.
Day two. Begin your day at the corner of Sherbrooke and Côte-des-Neiges. Walk west towards du-Fort Street. Notice the intact rows of uniform townhomes that line both sides of the street: they are incredibly well preserved. At the corner of St. Marc Street and Sherbrooke streets, sits the most stunning Masonic Temple on the planet. Opened in 1930, it is widely considered to be one of Canada’s most elegant examples of Beaux-Arts design. It has received many awards and has been likened to McKim, Mead & White’s J. P. Morgan Library (NYC) in stature. One block further at du-Fort, where you will turn left (south) towards the Canadian Centre for Architecture, lies two towers that rise 43 feet and a retaining wall that all predate 1700 and are some of the oldest structures on the island of Montreal. They compose what remains of the 1684 Forte de la Montagne. Next stop is the corner of du Fort and Renée Levesque Boulevard. Today it is a noisy and unpleasant intersection with an on-ramp to the highway but it used to be the aristocratic heart of Montreal. There are several mansions still extant here that sit on large, unsaleable plots of land, that are worth a glance at, particularly, the 1850 Masson house in the Second Empire Style. It could be argued that preservationist movement in Canada was born on this corner in 1973 when Phyllis Lambert (Daughter of Sam Bronfman and driving force behind the creation of Mies Van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building) purchased the stunning Second Empire Duplex to save it from being demolished to construct an entrance to the highway. Lambert established the Canadian Centre for Architecture on this site, and today it remains a valuable resource for academics, enthusiasts and urban planners alike. You’ll see why as this is your next stop. The last stop on this tour will be the centrally located, 1880, Lord Mount Stephens Mansion, which is now the swanky Mount Stephen Hotel. Still considered today to be one of the most opulent late Italianate houses in North America, this is the perfect place to end one’s tour of the fabled Golden Mile. Grab a seat beside the intricate onyx fireplace in the bar and marvel at the beauty of this palatial home panelled in rare woods, marble, onyx, and gold. Lord Mount Stephen was a founder and first president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. As he was one of the most powerful figures in early Canadian history, this is a fitting place to put your sore feet up in the exact spot he had, enjoy a cocktail and ponder the immense wealth and power that was concentrated in the Golden Mile at its zenith: around 1900, 70% of Canada’s wealth was controlled by the residents these marvellous mansions.
To explore Montreal’s Golden Mile is to see Canada’s last vestiges of the Gilded Age, a neighbourhood where some of Canada’s most powerful and influential families lived out their lives in palatial mansions designed by North America’s most celebrated architects of the day. The country’s best examples of Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Scottish Baronial, Richardsonian Romanesque, and of course Beaux-Arts all reside within its borders. Tales of Canada’s road to confederation, westward momentum, robber and liquor barons, and the every-day scandals of the aristocracy and the burgeoning bourgeoisie are woven into the fabric of this enclave, and the many plaques and architectural details that still abound.
Summer cannot come fast enough.