Friday, February 14, 2014

Stone and Snow

Over Christmas, my mother and I drove up to Montreal, which neither of us had visited in wintertime. We arrived on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve – the high the next day was 3 degrees, Fahrenheit – to a rather deserted Quartier Latin. French Canadians take Boxing Day almost as seriously as Christmas, so little was open the next two days, save some very good restaurants. We made sure we earned our meals with a good deal of walking, both in the old city and up on the Plateau Mont-Royal.

Montreal’s roots go way back into the seventeenth century, but it experienced a resurgence during the Victorian era, while under British rule. Great quantities of raw materials from the Canadian interior passed through its port, and it became the country’s key center of finance, as well a manufacturing powerhouse.

The period’s prosperity is reflected by the noble architectural legacy that it bequeathed. Many of its great stone buildings, domestic, commercial, and institutional, remain. Steeply shingled roofs, dormer windows, and grey stone characterize the bulk of these edifices.

I was reminded of Melbourne, another city that came of age in the late-nineteenth century. Though of course New South Wales has none of Montreal’s French influence, its toponymy is also replete with the names of the English, Irish, and Scottish men who made a fortune from the region’s commodities. If I remember correctly, the Melbourne bourgeoisie built with brick rather than granite, but the form of their houses is much the same as those of their Montreal contemporaries (they also liked elaborate ironwork).

My favorite shot from our December trip was taken at the Place Saint-Louis, a few blocks north of our auberge. Firmly on the plateau, it seemed very removed from the scruffy blocks by the UQAM campus. The bold trim of the houses stood out on a grey, snowy day. I’m certainly not the first to snap a photo of this stately block.

One other distinctive aspect of Montreal’s residential architecture is the ubiquity of curving fire escapes in the rear of houses. I wonder why this particular style caught on?

Next summer, we plan to return after our sojourn at Squam, so I hope I can add a companion entry to this article.