Homage to Georges Coulombe for his contributions to the evolution of Montreal’s historic neighbourhood
The vitality and brilliance Old Montreal has today is thanks to the vision and actions of men and women, in spheres both public and private, who had the audacity and energy to give life back to a neighbourhood long in search of an identity and allure.
For 45 years, Georges Coulombe has been a leading force in the revitalisation of a large number of buildings in the neighbourhood, several of which are among the most iconic in the city.
Supporter and promoter of built heritage heritage, at the heart of a sector without rival in the continent, Georges Coulombe continues to contribute to the life of a neighbourhood that has known a balance between its commercial, residential, and touristic facets unlike any that have come before it.
A Passion for Old Montreal
Georges Coulombe is on the same level as these discreet builders, caught up in the energy and passion of the next project.
Unburdened by the need to be in the spotlight, his heart and mind are constantly turned toward the future. And his actions back up what few can even brag about: for four decades, Georges Coulombe has been one of the most important pillars of this historic district’s evolution.
Today, the footprint of Gestion Georges Coulombe, a business comprising forty specialists, can be seen across several historic streets in the neighbourhood. Of note, they include Notre-Dame, Saint-Jacques, McGill, Saint-Paul, Saint-Pierre, Le Moyne, Saint-Nicolas, Saint-Éloi, Saint-Vincent, and de Brésoles.
The old headquarters for Banque Royale, Banque Molson, and the Insurance Exchange (Saint-Jacques Street) as well as the Sauvegarde building (Notre-Dame Street East) are among these impressive fixtures.
The commercial and residential reach of Gestion George Coulombe now surpasses 2 million square feet, shared across fifteen iconic buildings that house workers, merchants, and residents from all walks of life.
The Eternal Quest for Beauty
The few interviews that Georges Coulombe has done over the years, as well as the one he gave in 2021 in the webseries Fabricant d’Émotions reveal the outlines of a pretty extraordinary history.
Originally from Saguenay, born to a large family, inspired by the flower power movement, the young Georges Coulombe found he had a penchant for art, literature, and poetry. At 15, he left the nest, sailed to New York, then roamed Europe for three years, then moved to Montreal.
In 1964, he made his debut as a clerk at Alcan. Twelve years later, he left the business as the director of graphic production in the Montreal headquarters.
Fostering an entrepreneurial soul, he then co-founded the Coulombe Latreille graphics studio in 1976. In search of new premises, he planned on renting in Old Montreal, where the living cost was more affordable than in downtown.
296, Saint-Paul Street West
When speaking to journalist Robert Bernier of Parcours magazine, he explained that at the end of the 60s, Old Montreal wasn’t super attractive. “I told myself that it was impossible that nothing would happen here. It wasn’t really a visionary thought. It was obvious that one day or another, Old Montreal would grow and develop.”
His search for business premises led him to 296, Saint-Paul Street West. While speaking with the owner, he bought the derelict building for $28,500.
Founding the Gestion Georges Coulombe
This purchase would be the first in an impressive series. He restored the building, rented it out, continued his commercial pursuits, and then, in 1982, acquired a second building and officially founded the Gestion Georges Coulombe business.
“I always feel a grip on my heart when standing in front of an old building. Then I get the urge to take on the challenge of restoring it, integrating it with today’s sensibilities while still respecting its past”, he explained in 2006 during an interview with the newspaper Vieux-Montréal.
Twenty years later, at the turn of the 2000’s, Le Devoir was already praising his support in an article boasting the evocative title: For Rent Signs Disappearing in Old Montreal
The vacancy rate “saw a remarkable fall during the next three years”, having dropped from 32% to 14%. The text mentions Georges’ contribution, who at that time had already restored thirty buildings.
It was a noticeable contrast from the 1970’s, a period that, as Georges Coulombe explains in Fabricants d’émotions, “you had to walk on the street in order to avoid windows falling on your head.”
Old Montreal SDC: The District Businesses’ Vault Key
In 2004, wanting to give a voice to neighbourhood entrepreneurs, Georges Coulombe and some other actors in the business sector founded the Old Montreal Economic Development Society (Old Montreal SDC), an essential tool in consolidating the neighbourhood’s development over the short, medium, and long-term.
Less than 20 years later, the SDC numbers more than 2,400 members, representing more than 40,000 workers, 1,800 office buildings, and 600 businesses holding premises.
Bridging East to West
A little-known fact: the creation of the Old Montreal SDC also draws its origins from a dream, strongly coloured by Georges Coulombe’s drive to create a strong bridge between the east and west sides of the neighbourhood. At that point the west was barely considered an integral part of Old Montreal.
In Échos du Vieux-Montréal, in 2004, he explains that the founding of the Old Montreal SDC is “a great way to grow Old Montreal. We have arrived at a crossroads that requires an extra effort to make things more refined and to become a neighbourhood with an international vision“. His objective was to “ensure that the people that work here, the merchants, and the residents are happy, and can do good business.”
In the wake of its creation, starting in March 2005, while Georges Coulombe was serving as president of the Old Montreal SDC administrative counsel, he challenged the mayor in an open letter published in La Presse.
In it, he specified that the neighbourhood that routinely welcomed 10 million visitors was “a victim of its popularity, and needed improvements”. Pleading for a better protection of this “precious heritage”, he also cited deficiencies in “urban infrastructure and services to citizens and business owners”.
Mobilizing the Neighbourhood
The General Director of the Old Montreal SDC since 2010, Mario Lafrance, noted that “even if everything has room for improvement, there is no doubt that Georges Coulombe’s fundamental support in mobilizing the business community has been an absolutely crucial motor in the preservation and shine of Old Montreal’s distinctive character.”
He adds that “Georges Coulombe is without argument one of the biggest architects that gave Old Montreal the identity and the character it deserves. In fact, that may be his most significant achievement – contributing to building the pride of a whole neighbourhood“.
The Hunt for Beauty
During the first part of his life, and then in parallel to his realty work, Georges Coulombe explored several different avenues: co-proprietor of a café, a music bar, and an art gallery, music and book editor (Champ-de-Mars Publishing), owner of a sound studio and a framing business… he’s even touched on cinema work!
“Everything I do is centred around the hunt for beauty. But I’m aware that I may never reach it,” he said in 2021 while shooting for the series Fabricants d’émotions.
Over the years, Georges Coulombe has headed up a large number of administrative boards and has been awarded many distinctions.
In 1999, Montreal mayor Pierre Bourque honoured him with the Merit Award for the preservation of our heritage, as awarded by the City of Montreal and Heritage Montreal. “It is thanks to Georges Coulombe that we can be proud to show our visitors a neighbourhood that never stops improving itself,” the mayor declared during the ceremony.
In 2008, the Société Immobilière Trans-Québec (SITQ), a branch of the Caisse de Dépôt at the time, bestowed Georges Coulombe with their Award of Excellence “for his exceptional contribution to the preservation of Montreal’s architectural heritage”.
Georges Coulombe then said that he received this award “with humility, knowing that it represented the effort of a whole team that worked toward the rehabilitation of numerous historical buildings.” And he added on as a promise: “And there are still many more to restore!”
Shining a Light on His Talent and Vision
The life of Georges Coulombe leads us, of course, to outside of Old Montreal. Just as surreptitiously, he actively involved himself in the city he adopted as a residence for decades, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
Gestion Georges Coulombe has also completed iconic projects in other neighbourhoods, like the American Can Company project in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and the historical treasure StoneHaven Manor (now Relais Château) in Laurentides, inaugurated in 2019, for example.
At the corner of Saint-Denis and Maisonneuve in Montreal, the team has signed off on one of its first entirely new construction projects, a building with five stories that will hold several offices and integrate fully with Espace Saint-Denis.
One thing is for certain, the influence of Georges Coulombe on the revitalisation of a number of important buildings in Old Montreal remains immeasurable.
Also just as significant – his vision, time, and energy that has been devoted to the founding and formation of the Old Montreal SDC, carried by his will to create solid links between merchants and business people.
Many will agree that Georges Coulombe has also walked the path of a very sensible manager and been highly attuned to the needs and challenges of a landlord. To the point of having himself owned long-term businesses – partly to better understand business functioning, partly to be a benchmark for sellers and business owners – with the aim of overseeing relationships for the long haul, as one would expect.
In an interview with Pierre Vallée, from Le Devoir in 2004, Georges Coulombe basically sums up the foundations of his journey: “A building gives, but for it to function, we also have to give to the building.”
And the results? Georges Coulombe now knows a network of mutual loyalty and appreciation among his numerous renters, another factor that has doubtless served to amplify the growth of the neighbourhood and his business’ success.
In 1989, he said to journalist Suzanne Lalande of Devoir: “I love renovation. These old buildings have a soul, a life, and an entire story to tell. When you enter one, you can’t help but feel it resonate. It’s an extraordinary challenge renovating old buildings: you never know what to expect.”
In regards to the challenge inherent to restoring historical buildings, he told Valérie Legault of the Canada Français Daily: “There’s almost an art to reconciling history and modernity, because buildings must ceaselessly be brought up to the current code.”
Because of this, in the background of these kinds of projects, the challenges are unexpected, constant, and immense. For an admirer of art, he has admirably crafted some of his own.
In 1990, at only 45 years old, Georges Coulombe wished that Old Montreal would “one day become an ideal place to build offices.” In the same interview published in Le projet Vieux-Montréal, they specify that “the success of Georges Coulombe was certainly due to his attention to his occupants’ needs, the satisfaction he got from his work, and his great versatility in conceptual and creative endeavours.”
Three decades later, he’s still active and still looking toward “the next project”, so that he may get the feeling of having accomplished something major and unique.
While people in the mid-1970’s, many people saw nothing but derelict buildings, but Georges Coulombe saw hope in the future.
Since then, he has been preserving and enhancing Old Montreal. He has been writing an important chapter in his story.
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Georges Coulombe in 12 Quotes
Here are 12 quotes taken from the web series Fabricants d’émotions, an Old Montreal SDC initiative produced in 2021.
“For me, Old Montreal is a complete neighbourhood well-suited to live, work, and grow.”
“I am a simple person that has completed some complex things.”
“I wanted to give tenants the possibility of avoiding financial pressure, so that they could grow with us.”
“Qualities develop by doing things. Many possess the qualities, but not the experience.”
“A good leader is one who listens. But not one that only listens! (laughs) »
“Deep down, I realized I had been lazy. I could always do more, and at higher quality.”
“What makes me most proud? The people that work with us.”
“Old Montreal is in my roots, though I may be a proud member of the Ordre du Bleuet! (laughs).”
“I am not a visionary. But I would love to be one.”
“I’ve always dreamed of doing something that would endure through time. “
“You can’t do a restoration then forget it. The building must live alongside the people. Not as if it was in a museum.”
“What interests me most is not my path. It’s my next project.”
Homage given by the Old Montreal SDC Vieux-Montréal, on behalf of the historic neighbourhood’s business community.