Built architectural heritage: bringing the past to the present

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The cradle of North America’s French and British Empires, Montreal is full of buildings that have immense heritage and architectural value. Here are two examples of how Montreal is learning to bring the buildings of the past to the present-day.

Gare Viger, Old Montreal Heritage Site

Still considered one of Old Montreal’s architectural gems, Gare Viger—also known as Château Viger—was built in the style of Château de la Vallée-de-la-Loire, and has elegant turrets, 200 windows, and a copper-shingled roof. Designed by architect Bruce Price, who also designed the Chateau Frontenac, it was inaugurated by Canadian Pacific Railways in 1898. The luxury hotel-railway station sadly fell into disuse after a brief stint as officer training facilities in World War II, and after having welcomed the City of Montreal’s offices for some 60 years.

In 2012, Gare Viger’s luck finally changed when it was purchased by Jesta Group, a Montreal-based international real estate enterprise.

“Purchasing a heritage site like this in the very heart of downtown Montreal is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” enthuses Anthony O’Brian, Senior Managing Director of Jesta Group, the firm that has invested $250 million dollars to convert Gare Viger and Gare Berri into commercial and office space. “At the time some commented that these sites’ locations—near the eastern end of Old Montreal—weren’t optimal if we wanted to attract prestige renters, but we knew that they would be successful.”

It was a well-placed bet: a Jesta-affiliated group moved into Gare Berri, and Gare Viger now houses the head offices of two high-profile Quebec companies: Coalision (who own sportswear brands Lolë and Paradox), and Lightspeed (international leader in technological business solution development). Lightspeed’s immense offices are located on the ground floor and top four floors of Gare Viger, their office space designed by Montreal’s own ACDF Architecture firm, who took the notion of “an unfinished, open space that gives you the impression of interloping,” explains Maxime-Alexis Frappier, Senior Architectural Associate.

It all began when Lightspeed hired the firm to find a space for them, and ‘fell in love’ with Gare Viger. After extensive restoration work, the locale was totally bare, with only its skeleton remaining: steel structures, brick walls, wooden posts and frameworks, dizzyingly high ceilings….
“It represented a unique opportunity to take a place that has so much history, and transform it into a place of and for the future. We married the historic and the contemporary with a rather hands-off approach, so we could maintain the feeling the bare space had,” explains Frappier.

Using existing architectural elements, architects integrated mural artwork and structural furniture in order to create light-filled, open-feeling offices, and meeting spaces that reflected the dynamism that the young, proudly Montrealais technology company embodies. It was a clear success: Lightspeed’s offices have won awards all across the globe. Frappier has worked on several historical building conversions in Quebec, and notes that there’s a new-found positivity when it comes to Montreal’s preservation of architectural heritage. “More and more real estate promoters are becoming aware of the need to preserve buildings, and are offering high-quality restoration projects that whenever possible enable built architectural heritage to shine. The city itself is also better equipped to support that kind of development, which is also very positive.”

Royal Victoria Hospital: Mont Royal Heritage Site

Nobly stretching across the southern side of Mont Royal, the former Royal Victoria Hospital building is emblematic for Montrealers, and offers unparalleled views of the city. The oldest of the cluster of buildings dates back to 1893, but the entire site represents impressive historical and architectural heritage.

At the time, the first buildings’ construction were financed by Montreal’s wealthy Anglophone community and were designed by London’s Henry Saxon Snell and featured Scottish Victorian-style architecture, including elements such as adjacent turrets, indented gables, verandas, stone siding, and steeply sloping roofs. Owned by the Royal Victoria Hospital Corporation (under the auspices of the McGill University Hospital Centres, MUCH), the site has been vacant since 2015 when all hospital activities were moved to the city’s west end. So, what will become of these beautiful buildings, whose physical space extends some million square feet, and whose temporal footprint counts into decades?

McGill University’s main campus is located at the base of the mountain, ergo they’re pondering the possibility of becoming the owner of part of the site. “That idea is still in its embryonic stage, we’re in the pre-acquisition study phase right now,” explains Cameron Charlebois, McGill University’s, Campus Planning and Development General Executive Director.

Hypothetically, if McGill were to acquire the Royal Victoria Hospital site (with possible financial assistance from federal and provincial governments), the site would link two important academic themes: sustainable development and public policy—not coincidentally two themes embodied by the university’s academic plan for the site. “Any action on the site would need to take several key factors into consideration: care of existing structures and buildings with established heritage value, and protection of Mont Royal’s heritage site status, as protected by the Cultural Heritage Act,” specifies Charlebois. The site’s location on Mont Royal is therefore quite a “…delicate and sensitive one,” Charlebois admits.

Martin Pineault, Executive Director of Heritage and Buildings at the Ministère de la Culture et de Communications, has this to add: “From modifying pathways or driveways, all the way up to construction or demolition, the site’s new owner will require permission from the Ministère de la Culture et de Communications.” Another factor to consider? Any project on the site also needs to be “socially acceptable” indicates Charlebois. After public consultations, it appears that the general public want the hospital to remain a collective good. The City of Montreal, as well as other heritage protection organizations, will also be able to weigh in on the Royal Victoria Hospital site’s future.

And yet, there is progress. McGill University will complete its feasibility study between now and the end of 2018, and if the acquisition project moves forward, the time- honoured university may restore a portion of the site that it needs, and take occupancy at the top of the mountain in 2026—and The Royal Vic will live on again.

Text: Annick Poitras


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