The Montréal City Hall: a Building Reborn of its Ashes
August 28, 2017 / Posted by Heritage Montreal - Collaborator
The Montréal City Hall reveals its ornamental architecture to passersby much like a phoenix spreading its wings. At first glance, this poetic simile might seem quite bizarre, but you’ll understand it soon enough. So what does a municipal government building have to do with a mystical creature of Egyptian and Greek mythologies? Well, both are reborn of their ashes! The architectural history of Montréal’s City Hall, inaugurated in 1878, fell victim to a massive fire which spared only its stone walls. Let us shine a light on the history of this iconic building while important restoration work is currently in progress.
The Montréal City Council needed a big building with an eloquent architecture which would reflect the portrait of a city in the midst of rapid expansion. They came to this conclusion after having used several locations, such as the house of the Hayes aqueduct and the Bonsecours Market. Architects Henri-Maurice Perreault and Alexander Cowper Hutchison were tasked with the elaboration of the plans for this building, erected in the part of Montréal where municipal decisions have always been made. You can see it in front of the Château Ramezay and near the Palais de justice, atop a small hill, towering over the city. The building adopts a classical architectural style similar to the one of the Second Empire. Its symmetrical façade, built from grey stones collected in Montréal, boasted the monumental entry to its central pavilion, over which one could observe four curved dormers with clocks. This entry overlooking the river features a double pediment and majestic columns. This central pavilion is crowned by a forged iron balustrade and was neighboured by four other pavilions.
In the night of March 3 to March 4 1922, a fire broke out in the basement of the building and spread to all of its floors. In only a couple of hours, both storeys and the roof were engulfed. All that was left were the exterior walls and the registry vault built under Gosford and Notre-Dame Streets. We can see from the old photos an empty shell surrounded by debris — a phoenix egg waiting to hatch.
Louis Parant, the city’s chief architect, was tasked with the reconstruction of the City Hall in close collaboration with a committee of experts presided by architect Jean-Omer Marchand, the first Canadian graduate of the École des beaux-arts in Paris. The task was then taken over by L.-J.D. Lafrenière after Parant’s resignation. The engineers chose a self-supporting steel structure to lessen the burden of the stone walls. They added a full basement at the level of the Champ-de-Mars, and another floor after elevating the mansard roof. The Second Empire style was a harmonious fit with the Beaux-arts style transformations. The superior level of the central pavilion features a 185-foot-tall baroque-style curved campanile, atop which rests a clock, a symbolic element of the building’s function. Another change was made: The roof, covered in slate got a copper makeover. This second version was finished in 1926 and was expanded towards the Champ-de-Mars in 1930.
Whereas the central avant-corps is emblematic of the monumental character of the building with its ceremonial stairwell, the balcony allows speakers to address the crowds below, just like General Charles de Gaulle did in his famous speech. One can observe the city’s coat of arms — a fleur de lys, rose, thistle and clover, all symbol of the founding nations of the “Corporation of Montréal” — on top of the main entry and at the base of two impressive streetlights neighbouring it. The coat of arms and the flag of Montréal will soon be modified to include a symbol which would reflect the contribution of Indigenous peoples.
Discover other secrets of Montreal’s architecture during the 2017 edition of the ArchitecTours of Montréal Héritage, presented from August 12 to October 8.