Chronique de Peter Trent, ancien maire de Westmount
Peter F. Trent • Special to Montreal Gazette
Published Jan 04, 2024 • Last updated 4 hours ago • 3 minute read
The Van Horne mansion, at Sherbrooke and Stanley Sts., circa 1969. PHOTO BY TEDD CHURCH /Montreal Gazette files
The preservation of Montreal’s built heritage is a hit-and-miss affair. The exception remains Old Montreal: former mayor Jean Drapeau regarded it as older and “more French” in character than, say, Victorian Montreal. Yet it was a few anglophones who worked tirelessly to get Old Montreal awarded its 1964 provincial designation as a historic district.
Aside from a handful of buildings dating from the French regime, all surviving historic buildings in Old Montreal were, in fact, built by the British following the 1763 Treaty of Paris, when France abandoned Nouvelle-France in order to retrieve lucrative sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
The Square Mile to the west of Old Montreal, built by wealthy anglos between 1860 and 1914, was never given heritage protection. McGill University led a demolition derby of Victoriana by knocking down the Prince of Wales Terrace in 1971. Two years later, a developer demolished the Van Horne mansion, an important Square Mile house on Sherbrooke St.
Since then, Quebec has classified a few buildings, but the Square Mile as a historic district is long gone.
Dereliction of our built heritage comes in other forms. Aside from the self-explanatory demolition by neglect and façadism, there’s what I call “loftism”: the stripping bare of heritage interiors to create open-concept, interior-wall-free “lofts.” This covert yet cavalier disregard for historical interiors is the result of an architectural blandemic, the fashion known as “mid-century modern.”
Such interior evisceration is often accompanied by stripping plaster to reveal brick mitoyen walls, which is a clever way to sample more fully your neighbours’ odours and noise.
Then there are modern insertions. It has become an article of faith among most architects that any insertion of a new building into a historic district, or even an addition to a heritage building, must be done in an overtly contemporary style. Replication of historic styles is frowned upon, even if commonly practised in the past. Westmount is perhaps a leader in its comprehensive body of regulations requiring any such stylistic marriages be consummated with utmost care.
In 1995, Westmount was divided into 39 character areas, each with their architectural traits with which new construction must harmonize. Most of Westmount was built in the 1890-1910 period; this is why there is such a unity of style, form and materials. Before 1995, modern egocentric architectural infill rarely respected this unity.
A recent legal case sheds light on how Westmount has managed to preserve its architectural heritage. It reinforces the notion that if a city gives itself a comprehensive body of design guidelines, the city council has the power to enforce them, even if it exercises some discretion in doing so.
In this case, the plaintiff claimed Westmount city council was abusive when it refused, in 2017, a building permit for a house in a starkly contemporary style, to be inserted between two heritage houses in one of Westmount’s most historic districts. The permit refusal, it was claimed, was done only to “please the personal taste of the mayor (Trent)” and went against the recommendation of the city’s own planning advisory committee. In 2022, Quebec’s Superior Court decided — in a ruling recently upheld on appeal — that council’s refusal was not abusive or arbitrary; on the contrary.
As long as we cleave to the supposition that today’s architectural fashions are the only true ones, as long as we believe they will last forever, and as long as we demean or demolish all buildings constructed in past fashions to supplant with our own, we shall continue to destroy what came before us. But we do not have the right to do so; this is the value of teaching history, respect and remembrance.
Peter F. Trent, a former inventor and businessman, served five terms as mayor of Westmount and led the Montreal demerger movement. His Merger Delusion was a finalist for the best Canadian political book of 2012.