What we know about the ‘Old Town’ of Montreal and its mysterious ruins
The ruins of Montreal are a hidden gem in Canada’s urban landscape, a ghost town of historic buildings that have endured for generations.
But a series of discoveries and interviews with the city’s most prominent architects and historians have uncovered new insights into its past.
Architectural drawings from the 19th century by Robert Dussault and Étienne Hébert reveal that Montreal’s Old Town was once home to the oldest surviving residential area in the province.
The Old Town, located on the north side of Montreal, was originally called Saint-Léonard-de-Luchy and was the center of the provincial capital of Montreal.
It’s located on a strip of land known as the Loire Valley and was part of the northern edge of the larger area known as Montreal, Quebec.
“This is the most important historic area in Quebec and was one of the largest residential areas in Quebec,” said Richard Pénéchal, a professor of architecture at the University of Montreal who has spent decades studying the Old Town.
“In the 1940s and 50s, the population of the area was around a million people,” he said.
“It was the largest city in Quebec.”
“We had a great deal of residential activity here, but that changed dramatically when we started to build in the 1950s.
So the Old City began to disappear.”
The development of Montreal’s residential area led to a sharp decline in the number of residents who lived in the area.
In the 1960s and 1970s, as the area’s population grew, so did the number and complexity of the residential buildings that dominated the area, Pénecys said.
The Old Town became the site of many of the world’s most significant modern buildings.
“We have all kinds of amazing things that are built on the site,” he explained.
“You can see the St. Louis Arch, the Légion d’Honneur, the Saint-Paul Cathedral.
We’ve got this fantastic structure that is called the Grand Hyatt, built in a really short period of time, that was designed by an architect who is still alive.””
The building of the Grand Hotel, the new Royal Opera House, is an amazing example of the development of the Old Place, but we can see these great, massive, historic buildings on the landscape.
We see these structures in the landscape all the time.”
Péneces said that for some of the buildings in the Old House, the original owners of the property had taken on the identities of people living in the town.
“For example, you have the St-Louis Arch, which was originally a hotel, was built by an Italian immigrant,” he recalled.
“But it was later taken on by a French Canadian couple who were from Quebec City and moved to Montreal.”
For the most part, Pélancys said, the buildings were not constructed on the Old Terrace and were actually built around other structures, such as the original building of a tavern, or a building that was originally part of a large residential complex, such the Stableau des Arts, a large public hall.
The most famous structure of the former residential area was the Grand Hall of the Royal Opera, which is the seat of the Montreal Opera.
The Stableaus des Arts building, which once housed the Royal Stables, was used for performances in the late 1800s.
“It’s just incredible to see all these great structures and to see how the architecture has been developed and how it has been changed,” Pénèchal said.
“What we have here is an extraordinary heritage, and it’s amazing how much of that is from the past.”
The buildings that make up the Grand Terrace are unique in that they are the only remaining remnants of the old residential area.
“The entire Old Town is still intact, and you can still see it,” Péllancys added.
“You can still walk in the old street, you can even see the old building.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this before.”
The original plan for the Grand House was to have a three-story building that would have housed the opera house, but the architect decided to build a four-story structure that would house the Stables as well.
The original Stables were located on one side of the Stabilier du Soleil, which sits on the south side of downtown Montreal.
The Grand Terrance was the home of the LÉ-Club du Parc, a French dance club that opened in the 1890s.
The LÉ was named for the French words for “lady,” which refers to the role the ladies played in the community.
The LÉ Club du Parcs owner, the late Marie-Édouard Léon, is believed to have died in 1885, but some of his descendants continue to claim ownership of the building.
Péllacys said the L