The Renovation of Montreal’s Place d’Armes: Pretty Cool, Actually

I’m the first to criticize outlandish government spending. I scoff every time I see a provincially commissioned billboard touting the latest investment/money pit. I snicker when some minister or another complains about lack of funding, rather than appropriately managing what they already have. I even turn my nose up at particularly ostentatious Christmas light displays, deeming them a questionable use of public funds. But I’m willing to give credit where credit is due, and declare my appreciation for the final result of one project I feel actually looks cool: the redevelopment of Place d’Armes, one of Montreal’s most beautiful public squares.  (Note: I said cool; not necessarily entirely worthwhile.)

I’ve always been pretty enamoured of Place d’Armes. The juxtaposition of architectural styles alone is fascinating and reveals the square’s storied past dating back to the 17th century (impressive by North American standards). The gorgeous Hôtel Place d’Armes, the art deco Aldred Building, the New York Life Building (Montreal’s first skyscraper), the old Bank of Montreal building (Canada’s first bank), and the 1960’s-built 500 Place d’Armes Tower all defer to the dramatic, almost spooky silhouette of the Notre-Dame Basilica. (My appreciation grew when I read that the Aldred Building’s tiered design was specifically meant to avoid distracting from the basilica’s spires.) In the square’s centre sits the majestic fountain commemorating our city’s illustrious founder, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve. (He’s flanked by a few key members of his entourage: Jeanne Mance, Lambert Closse, Charles LeMoyne, and someone simply called “Iroquois”.) It was a square I looked forward to walking through on my way home, in spite of its disordered, tourist-trap feel.

Throughout the last couple of years, the square’s beauty has been hugely obscured by what felt like a permanent construction zone, in which very little actual work appeared to be underway. This seemed to cause significant bewilderment among tourists who could be seen wandering into oncoming traffic in efforts to avoid the chaos (inevitably resulting in even more chaos). The four intersections surrounding the square were a veritable nightmare for anyone attempting to use them to get anywhere. Worse, the sight (and smell) of the sad-looking caleches and taxis waiting for fares amidst the madness completed the depressing scene, a decidedly unwelcoming one for visitors.

I’m happy to report, though, that upon the unveiling of the new square, the annoyance caused during the long development phase has given way to pleasant surprise and genuine appreciation. The new square looks, in my view, incredible. The way its borders mesh with the street gives the feeling of vastness, allowing one to take in the impressive milieu unimpeded (the caleche and taxi stands have been sacrificed to this end). The wide wooden benches look at once elegant and inviting, and the magnificent central monument once again reigns the space as it has in the past, commanded by the flowing-locked Maisonneuve. Modern design elements fuse with existing features without looking misplaced. And although I’m certain its installation will finance more children’s college educations than it should, the pavement is simply beautiful. Over and above the much-improved aesthetics, I feel that the redevelopment respectfully acknowledges the square’s historical heritage, and allows its best features to be admired and enjoyed as they should be.

It should considered that Place d’Armes was lovely before, so I can’t say for sure that these renovations were absolutely warranted – at least, not to this extent. (After writing this, I read up and learned that they cost $15.5 million, which does seem a tad… stratospheric.) What I will say is that the end result looks and feels wonderful – world-class, even – and I will look forward to strolling through it now more than I did before.

Addendum: I just read the Gazette’s Henry Aubin’s interesting perspective on the restoration here. He’s also got some photos.

Also, here are some comments from the renovation’s architect, Mario Brodeur.

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