census Montreal buildings

The case for a census of buildings in Montreal

The need for detailed records of the built environment in Montreal, particularly potential heritage buildings, is all the more urgent following the recent fire at the Bon Pasteur monastery.

A long time ago, perhaps as much as 50 years ago, a brilliant architect by the name of Melvin Charney thought that Montreal should conduct a census of its built environment. In the same way that the federal government conducts a census every five years to provide us with all the information we need to have about ourselves (vital data that supports every manner of public and private efforts and initiatives), Charney argued that the City of Montreal should do the exact same thing, albeit with a focus on buildings. 

The justification, Charney argued (I’m paraphrasing a bit but it’s the general idea), was threefold: we’d have exact knowledge of how many buildings we might consider to be heritage properties (those that are historically and/or architecturally significant); we’d know exactly how much of each type of building there is (as well as all their particulars — building type, materials used, dimensions, number of rooms, etc.); and we’d know where these buildings are in relation to everything else (transit, schools, parks, etc.)

When Charney had this idea, back in the early-1970s, many old buildings all over the city — and in too many cases, entire neighbourhoods — were being torn down, often just to create parking lots. So much of the city was being torn down people actually began protesting against it, and they were somewhat successful. A good portion of the Milton-Parc area was saved, as well the old Grey Nuns convent on René-Lévesque (today it’s mostly Concordia student housing). The Shaughnessy House (main pavilion of the Canadian Centre for Architecture) and Windsor Station were also saved by preservation activists active in Montreal in the 1970s, as were dozens of other historic or architecturally significant buildings outside the traditional preservation district of Old Montreal. Héritage Montréal, the city’s premier preservation advocacy group, traces its roots back to this movement, too.

For whatever reason, no one took Charney up on his idea, though if I recall correctly one of the very lame excuses provided was that it would be too difficult to do (again, the federal government takes a census of every single person in the entire country every five years, and there’s certainly not 38 million buildings in the City of Montreal).

Technology would obviously expedite the process, so all the more reason we ought to conduct such a census today. Moreover, the city is aware of this problem, and has been told as much recently. As recently reported by Nicolas Monet in Métro, the city’s auditor general, Michèle Galipeau, recently noted in her annual report that the city’s heritage buildings are not listed or qualified in a uniform way, which in turn constrains efforts to maintain and restore them. Galipeau further indicated that there is no maintenance standard or preventive maintenance program specific to heritage buildings in Montreal. Galipeau’s office indicates that there may be as many as 87,000 buildings built before 1940 just within the city limits, of which the city only seems to have records pertaining to just over 2,600. While not all of those 87,000 buildings would qualify as historically or architecturally significant, the number of buildings the city ought to be thinking about preservation wise is certainly much larger than 2,600. 

Montreal pollution air quality fire Bon-Pasteur
Photo by Heritage Montreal

I write this of course in the context of the massive fire that recently ripped through the Monastère du Bon-Pasteur. The old monastery was one of the best examples of creative adaptive reuse of an old institutional building in Montreal. It was a concert venue, one known for exceptional acoustics and a pair of unique, historic instruments, as well as a senior’s residence, a housing cooperative, a daycare centre, private condominiums, and office space for important local cultural organizations.

Like Héritage Montréal, which had its offices there. Their archive may have been lost in the fire. It’s a devastating loss for the city as much as the organization. It will be a while before we find out exactly what caused this fire, and the fact that the Monastère du Bon-Pasteur was actually well used probably helped ensure against a total loss of the building.

This isn’t the only major fire our city has suffered from this year, so a census of the city’s built environment could be used to accomplish a few different goals. Such a census could include an inspection by the fire department to ensure the building is up to code in terms of fire prevention. It might also include an inspector to ensure that the building isn’t being used for illegal AirBnBs or hasn’t been illegally converted. There’s a lot of good that could come from such a mass inspection of our built environment, and a lot of ill that comes from remaining deliberately ignorant. It doesn’t seem like the city knows if there is or isn’t a moratorium on fire evacuation inspections, as an example, something that could be fairly easily solved if the city simply went to work inspecting every house and building in the city with an aim to collect as much pertinent information as possible about them. We’re supposed to be living in a high-tech, data-driven metropolis of the 21st century, yet it so often feels like municipal authorities are not only working in silos, but still using typewriters and fax machines, too.

We might also want to consider refraining from using the term “heritage building” to refer to every old building in the city. This is something I’ve noticed over the years, and while I used to think this was a good idea — in that it would keep the idea of historic building preservation fresh in people’s minds — I now think it’s doing us a disservice. Many buildings we might assume to have a heritage status are completely unprotected (the Empress Theatre in NDG is a good example, and I know I’m not alone in thinking the city is looking forward to it going up in flames again just so that it won’t have to deal with it any longer). Conducting a building census would give us a clearer idea of just how many buildings in this are similarly lacking in any protection.

The city’s foot-dragging on protecting, promoting and preserving historic properties is remarkable given how much of Montreal’s cachet lies in its various and diverse historic qualities. Take the example of the magnificent Institut des Sourdes-Muettes on St-Denis, right next to the Sherbrooke metro station and the ITHQ. Mayor Plante says the building, which has been abandoned since 2015, is a top priority for her administration, and that she’s interested to see what will come of the building. And yet, the city does nothing — and this despite the fact that her own office, and the management of the ITHQ, have both identified the building as an excellent site for housing, be it social housing, student housing or some combination thereof. 

A census of the built environment would likely reveal a surplus of old institutional buildings throughout the city, each of which could be considered historically and architecturally significant and worthy of preserving, nearly all of which would be ideal for residential conversion. The city’s inertia on this file is difficult to understand, especially considering the fact that preserving and repurposing these old buildings would be fairly politically safe and the right move given the environmental costs of building anew.

On a related note, another long-abandoned institutional building, the Institut des Sœurs de Miséricorde on René-Lévesque, is in the news because the Mohawk Mothers want the site inspected for potential unmarked graves. I support this entirely, as, even if it doesn’t turn up evidence of unmarked burials, there’s a pretty good chance something interesting will likely be found on the grounds of an institutional building from the mid-19th century. As part of the census, the city might also conduct thorough archeological assessments, particularly of institutional buildings, given the strong possibility human remains might be found, if not evidence of pre-Contact Indigenous settlements. Once the archeological survey is completed, this building would also be ideal for conversion into subsidized or social housing. That’s where the need is, and the city has a social responsibility to use our built environment progressively, not to sell it off to the highest bidder.

The city of Montreal has gone to great lengths to capitalize on the apparent historicalness of our built environment for the purposes of tourism and leisure, yet seems consistently disinterested in actively engaging to preserve historic buildings and use what we have to its maximum potential. A building census would be a step in the right direction to solve this and a host of other inter-related problems. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.