Phillips Square Montreal

Phillips Square redux: Another missed opportunity

“There’s nothing progressive about spending $50-million in public money to make sure a fancy hotel, a fancy department store, a soon-to-be fancy condo tower and a bunch of jewellers have a pretty front yard. We could do better.”

You’d think we’d get a bit more bang for our buck with a price tag of $50-million.

The new Phillips Square is a bit of a letdown, especially when weighed against what was promised in 2019. We got about 20 more trees than the square previously had, though this is far fewer than the 75 initially promised. I’m not sure if it’s going to become the forested oasis Mayor Plante advertised when the renovation was announced back in January of 2019.

The square certainly feels larger than it did before — more open and better integrated with its surroundings than it did previously — but it seems like much of the expansion involved replacing sidewalks and the street with paving stones on the Ste-Catherine side, which isn’t a huge improvement.

There is more green space, but the city opted to repeat the mistake it made with Cabot Square, so instead of having accessible green spaces (the way Phillips Square was pre-renovation), those spaces are a) predominantly filled with plants and b) largely cut off and inaccessible to the public. I don’t know why the city prioritizes looking at shrubbery rather than inviting people to sit in the grass, but alas here we are. 

Whether there’s actually more room to sit is hard to determine. Though Plante promised a 76% increase in butt-parking spaces in the new Phillips Square, it seems like the oversized cement curbs that ring the green spaces is what constitutes sitting space. These aren’t fundamentally different from the stone retaining walls that enclosed all the green spaces in the old park, all of which were roughly the same height and regularly used as a place to sit. Anything that even remotely looks like a bench has been removed — either because Mayor Plante doesn’t believe in back support or the Birks Hotel people wanted to make sure their new front yard isn’t too inviting a place to stay for the city’s unhoused — so I’m not sure if we’ve got any kind of real improvement in the sitting department.

When the project was announced three and a half years ago, Plante said she wanted to restore Phillips Square’s character to that of an English-style square, which is an odd statement to make because, as best as I can figure, the English tradition doesn’t prioritize green spaces or trees for their town squares, and their garden square tradition tends to be private green spaces reserved for the exclusive use of the homes built around the square. Perhaps more importantly, this isn’t Phillips Square’s actual heritage anyways, something that could have been ascertained relatively easily with something called “Google.”

Phillips Square, as it was throughout much of the 19th century, was said to be a relic of the primeval forest that once would have covered much of the island of Montreal. It had the character of a dense forest, was filled with tall trees, and was surrounded by a small fence that only those who owned the residential properties around the square had access to. Back in the middle decades of the 19th century, the area around Phillips Square was nearly exclusively residential, and you could argue it was essentially suburban given that most of the city proper was still focused on the area we now call Old Montreal. Perhaps this is what Mayor Plante meant, and if that’s the case, I’m all for returning Phillips Square to being a reasonable facsimile of dense Montreal wilderness. That said, aside from the 20 or so additional trees that were planted, there’s little reason to suspect Phillips Square will look like a little forest in 20 years time. (By contrast, I was walking through Place du Canada the other day, whose extensive renovation was completed a decade ago, and it surprised me how the trees have matured. I can’t wait to see what it will look like in another 10 years, because we’re well on our way to a nice little forest.)

Phillips Square gradually deforested as the city around it changed in the latter decades of the 19th century: As more and more commercial activity moved up to Ste-Catherine Street, the square’s original character changed. Old Notman Collection photos from the early years of the 20th century give the impression there wasn’t much of the old forest left by the time it came to be seriously considered as a site for a monument for the person known as King Edward VII.

Arguably, there was no time in the whole history of Phillips Square that it looked more English than in October of 1914, when the monument to “Roi Pacificateur” was unveiled amidst a predominantly military audience. This is one of those classic examples of how the meaning and significance of monuments changes over time, though in this particular case the peace Edward VII is said to have been responsible for was completely shattered by the time the monument was revealed to the public (the First World War had begun just a few months earlier). We should keep this in mind before we start spending money on a new John A. Macdonald statue for Place du Canada — monuments reflect the societies and eras in which they were conceived.

Discussions concerning the monument date back to shortly after Edward VII died in 1910, and like many of the monuments commissioned back then, it was Montreal’s private business interests, and not its municipal government, that led the effort. 

So why was Phillips Square chosen for a monument to Edward VII? Because it didn’t have a monument at the time, and other public squares and parks did. More symbolically, in the contested terrain of public commemoration at the time, Phillips Square was seen something of common ground for the city’s French and English communities, and so the guy who happened to be king when the Entente Cordiale was signed was considered an appropriate commemoration for the square by the very British leaders of Montreal’s business community at the time.

Lamentably, because sight lines to the monument were to be prioritized, all the remaining trees were torn down and for decades Phillips Square was little more than the monument, several patches of grass, and some signs that told people to stay off the lawn.

That was Phillips Square at the height of “British Montreal,” so I hope the mayor misspoke and there’s no real intention to revive it.

That said, I’m left wondering why, in 2022, the city didn’t take the opportunity to create a new monument. Edward VII wasn’t “the Peacemaker” after all, and the monarchy is an enduring symbol of colonialism and imperialism that — despite what our collection of old monuments may suggest — doesn’t really have a home here. 

Phillips Square Montreal 1930s

A problem that comes with being considered “a historic city” is that few people in charge want to examine our monuments with a critical eye. Instead, we fall into this weird trap where we presume to be historic because of how many old monuments we have, and so by extension we don’t consider removing old monuments for fear of losing a part of our history. It’s ironic not only because many Montrealers would likely be quite critical of Americans who make the same argument about removing statues of Confederate generals, but also because, at least in this case, we know for a historical fact that the peace Edward VII was supposed to have established in Europe was a complete and total illusion. Again, we have a monument to a “peacemaker” king that was unveiled to a group of soldiers who were heading off to die in the trenches fighting the war that he was supposed to have prevented from happening. It’s more than a little odd.

And for $50-million, you’d figure we maybe could have bought a new monument. The giant cock ring at Place Ville Marie only cost $5-million. I’d really like to know exactly how $50-million was spent on Phillips Square (or why, if that’s what the estimate was going into this project, they didn’t scrap it as quite obviously too expensive). For comparison’s sake, the last time Phillips Square got a facelift, in 1996–97, it cost less than $800,000.

Another colossal missed opportunity concerns public washrooms, and again, for $50-million, you’d figure this too would have been included. Rather than renovate the two public washrooms that were once important features of the square (I believe they were covered up, though not dismantled, back in the 1960s), the city instead decided to get rid of them entirely. I don’t understand this — our city has almost no public washrooms, yet here we have a public square that already has not one, but two washrooms, and rather than restore them to their Art Deco beauty, the Plante administration instead decided to spend money destroying them. With very few exceptions, it generally costs less to renovate old structures than it will cost to build something new. I suspect the city will install some $2-million monstrosity of a self-cleaning toilet on the site in the years to come. As it happens, there was a pervasive odour of urine around the square when I visited recently.

In sum, it’s not terrible, but it’s not great either, and spending $50-million to only attain the level of ‘reasonably attractive but otherwise mundane’ seems like a waste of public money, particularly given that we’re in the midst of an affordable housing crisis and a homelessness crisis, and that amount of money could have created solutions for both those problems. There’s nothing progressive about spending a lot of public money to make sure a fancy hotel, a fancy department store, a soon-to-be fancy condo tower and a bunch of jewellers have a pretty front yard. We could do better. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.