The Shaughnessy Building: One of Montréal’s First Skyscrapers?

October 20, 2017 / Posted by   Heritage Montreal - Collaborator 

McGill Street tells many tales of Montréal’s intricate architectural history. When the city took down its fortifications in the early 19th century, McGill Street became one of the Montréal’s most important public areas. It was named after James McGill (1744-1813), a prosperous businessman and philanthropist of Scottish descendance, who made Montréal his home and was a great influence in opening up Montréal to trade by tearing down its fortifications.

Those of you who often take McGill Street have probably noticed many former warehouse-stores, now transformed into elegant boutiques and thriving cafés, alongside a series of high-rise office towers. You probably have also noticed the charming Shaughnessy Building, a high-rise of its time, built in 1912 and located on the corner of McGill and Saint-Paul Streets. This building evokes the prestige and eloquence of a bygone era; its architecture is noticeably different from the tall, slim, glass giants of the 1960s such as the Place Ville-Marie and the Telus Tower.

A 1910-Style Office Tower

The Shaughnessy Building was named after Sir Thomas Shaughnessy who was both the president of Canadian Pacific and the real estate firm Dorchester Realties which owned the building since its inauguration. This ten-storey “tower” was built to accommodate Canadian Pacific’s offices for everything that had to do with railroad management and communications. Its choice portside location made it popular among the district’s businesses as they lined up to get space in it. The ground floor, for example, was first rented out to C.P.R Telegraph and then to the Bank of Montreal, that opened a branch which would remain in business for over 80 years. After Dorchester Realties sold the building in 1939, it was subsequently sold to one owner after another, all of whom contributed towards the business diversity of the building’s tenants. Interestingly, from 1929 to the beginning of the 1990s, Canadian National had set up shop in a building that was intended to house the offices of Canadian Pacific, its fiercest competitor!

© Dessin, 1912 – Illustraded Montreal Old and New, 1915,

A Classic Style Draped Over a Modern Frame!

The Shaughnessy Building, designed by the prestigious architectural firm Hutchison, Wood and Miller, is quite impressive to all passersby as they gaze up and bask in its beauty. Its measurements and aesthetic are testament to the classically inspired style of North American skyscrapers at the time and built in respect of the 1901 municipal law which confined Montréal skyscrapers to ten storeys. Its style is also in line with its intended use. For example, it was built in a U-shape in order to guarantee proper lighting for the offices in the back and to help make the most out of the space available. Its main 50-metre-long façade was built with clear bricks, and can be seen from McGill Street. It emblemizes the three elements of a beaux-arts inspired North American skyscraper with its base, antique-style columns and capital. The high panel-clad pilasters which decorate the middle part of the building alternate beautifully with a series of bay windows. The succession of these elements gives people the impression of majestuous antique colonnade, but also brings out the building’s modern side, i.e. its steel frame!

L’édifice vu du sud-ouest, rue McGill. À droite, l’élévation de la rue Saint-Paul, traitée comme la façade principale. ©Denis Tremblay, 2007

Heritage Montreal - Collaborator

Heritage Montreal has worked to promote and to protect the architectural, historic, natural and cultural heritage of Greater Montreal, its neighbourhoods and communities. This private non-profit organization is at the heart of an extensive network of partners, working through education and representation to celebrate, develop and preserve Montreal’s identity and uniqueness.

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