Rebuilding a Neighbourhood of Montreal
François Dufaux and Sherry Olson
From experience with the latest flu virus, most of us are well aware that people co-evolve with minute organisms, and aware, too, that people are constrained or impelled by the actions of bigger entities – the nation, the giant corporation, or the oscillation of the jet stream. In the biological and earth sciences today, as well as the social sciences, scholarly excitement centres on issues of scale and relatedness, on how relatedness at one scale affects relatedness at another, how size and shape affect the ability of the virus or the whale to move, to signal and respond. The sciences depend on instrumentation and imagery that make it possible to detect, measure, magnify or reduce, and to move between large and small. The story we tell here, of the rebuilding of a burnt-out neighbourhood of Montreal in the 1850s, points to the value of HGIS as a research instrument – for the curious citizen, the adventurous amateur, or the advanced scholar.
For nineteenth-century Montreal, an instrument was already available to us, with city blocks, lots, and buildings of 1825, 1846, 1881, and 1901, and we have taken advantage of it to infer change and to explore the responses of property owners to a single dramatic event, the Great Fire of 1852. Owners’ responses highlight the meaning of design as a part of social history. As shown in other papers in this collection, GIS offers a platform to gather information about spaces and the people who occupy them. Although GIS performs its role in management and display of our data, we direction our attention in this chapter to the “zoom” as a feature for analyzing nested spaces. The historical sequence reveals the attention property owners were giving to both global and local considerations. How did citywide traffic and investment opportunities affect the owner’s decision to rebuild? How did the investor juggle commercial space or dwelling space? a choice of materials? or a particular layout of rooms? From a social perspective, the zoom allows us to observe the person or family group who occupy a room, the room as part of a dwelling, the several dwellings stacked in a building, the buildings aligned in terraces and streets, and the streets arranged as a network with distinctive topology. The street we feature here, once known as St. Mary Street and today as Notre-Dame East, was the backbone of an 1830s neighbourhood destroyed by fire in 1852, rebuilt, destroyed forty years later to widen the street, and again rebuilt. As we shall see, large features, slow to change, are “environments” for the smaller ones, and small adjustments of boundaries and design contribute to the viability of a neighbourhood and success of the city as a whole. To consider changes at every scale, the “zoom” of the HGIS makes possible an interactive approach to urban form.
Fig. 8.1. The zooming opportunities of GIS: territorial, urban, building, and dwelling scales. (Sources: MAP project, François Dufaux, BAnQ, Atlas of Montreal, Goad, 1881; expropriation de la rue Notre-Dame Est.)
For research on nineteenth-century Montreal, the convenient instrument is the HGIS “MAP, Montréal, l’avenir du passé,” a collective project in which dozens of people have invested their skills, each with a different purpose in mind.1 Over the last ten years, applications have included studies of infant and child mortality, social mobility from one generation to the next, the catchment of a school in relation to parents’ objectives, and the gendering of investments in the business centre.2 Such studies draw on the massive databases integrated into MAP. The spatial links place the household on the cadastral lot – 7,000 lots in the 1850s, 30,000 in 1900 – with sufficient precision to measure buildings as small as the privy or the stable.
Since the neighbourhood of St. Mary Street was destroyed a third time in the 1970s, nothing remains of the great wooden city that existed before the fire – plank houses pièce-sur-pièce, shingled roofs, wooden stables, and boardwalks. Our analysis depends on archival documents, pieced together by insertion in the GIS. The habitat, as it was newly rebuilt in the 1850s, was displayed in elegant architectural renderings made when it was torn down in 1891. The earlier habitat – before the fire – we recovered from three sources: a cruder map of 1846, phantom walls and foundations that survived as vestiges on the 1891 drawings, and verbal specifications attached to the original construction contracts.3 In addition to the conventions of a “geographic” display, the architectural questions invited application of SketchUp, a design-based software, and analytic techniques known as “space syntax.”4 With the enlarged tool kit, we take advantage of diverse and scattered sources – engravings, photographs, old maps, legal contracts, and newspaper clippings – to interpret the production of urban space.5 In the process we uncover the logic of design – or re-design – at the several scales of the streetscape, the block, the lot, and the building. Those choices are related. We discover also social relatedness that is associated with the evolution of the built environment: the everyday circulation of the family in a dwelling, the business transacted in the street, and what it meant to be “neighbours.”
Fig. 8.2. The extent of the 1852 fire. (Sources: Cane map of 1846, corresponding MAP layers; and newspaper accounts; Ruines du grand incendie à Montréal, rue Saint-Denis, près de Bishop’s Church, 1852, Image M7411.1.1, Courtesy of McCord Museum.)
The history of a city is a succession of imagined futures. On Thursday, 8 July 1852, a spark interrupted all the various futures imagined by the people who lived in St. Mary Street, worked there, owned, rented, or financed the properties. All day the fire ran along the east side of St. Lawrence. On Friday morning, re-kindled, it swept east with a fury along St. Mary,6 destroying one fifth of all the houses in the city and leaving 12,000 people homeless. Figure 8.2, reconstructed from newspaper accounts, indicates the unusual meteorological conditions that nursed the furious spread of the fire. On Saturday afternoon, a town meeting, after venting recriminations and accusations of negligence, struck a committee for relief, and a week later the committee identified three classes of sufferers – substantial property owners who would have to look after themselves, small property owners who would need some assistance (presumably loans) in recovering their footing, and tenant families to whom the community would, through the clergy, furnish bread and soup and blankets and tents – under no circumstances cash!7 The emergency made clear the interdependence of all elements of the community, but most of the people were left to their own devices. In the face of tragedy, how did they re-build their assets? The investments of families in St. Mary Street give some idea of their strategies. In owners’ efforts at reconstruction, we shall see the importance of collaborations of family networks and negotiations between neighbouring property owners.
A Particular Kind of Street
St. Mary Street was laid out as a country road leading to the town centre, the fortified Montreal of the French regime. The Adams map of 1825 (Fig. 8.3) shows it as the route of south-shore farmers from the ferry across the St. Lawrence to the central market, and, since it linked installations of the British army (the barracks east of the docks, and the cannon on St. Helen’s Island), it was the only road authorized for conveyance of gunpowder. By the 1830s, it was “the Great Main Street” of a fast-growing suburb, and on the Cane map of 1846 its increased density is apparent in the building footprints that form a near-continuous façade.
In a “typo-morphology” of streets, St. Mary was a “matrix road,” backbone of development. At intervals across it, “planned building routes” were opened to promote subdivision of land into urban lots; and eventually, connecting streets were created for movement between subdivisions. That sequence is widely observed in cities, and when the urban fabric has become densely structured to a point of congestion, a “breakthrough street” is cut through the existing network.8 In this case, Craig, the breakthrough street, was conceived as a firebreak 80 feet wide and developed 1853–1856, challenging the advantage of St. Mary Street for access to the centre. St. Mary was still perceived as an axis of centrality, and some of the most ambitious rebuilding projects asserted a vision of the street as an extension of the historic town centre.
Fig. 8.3. St. Mary Street and Ward, 1825, 1846. (Sources: Adams map of 1825, Cane map of 1846, corresponding MAP layers, BAnQ, McGill University Libraries, Special Collections.)
Fig. 8.4. After the fire of 1852, creation of the Craig Street “firebreak” created competition to the merchants in Notre Dame Street properties. (Sources: Cane map of 1846, Sicotte map of 1874, corresponding MAP layers, BAnQ.)
Fig. 8.5. Property values per square metre as developed in 1881. (Sources: Goad Atlas of 1881 and MAP databases from taxroll of property, Montreal, June 1880.)
Fig. 8.6. Awards for land expropriated in 1891 per square foot. Owners were compensated also for the estimated value of brick, pipe, and other materials. (Sources: BAnQ, Expropriation de la rue Notre Dame Est.)
Fig. 8.7. William Clarke’s house was promptly rebuilt. (Source: BAnQ, Expropriation de la rue Notre Dame Est, TP11,S2,SS2,SSS42,D184-1891-30.)
At the scale of the city, centrality affects the economic value of a piece of land. This is apparent in Fig. 8.5 for 1881. The cross streets close to the centre underwent earlier and more intense development; by the 1850s, they were longer and better connected to the fast-developing northern section of town, so that along St. Mary the compensation awarded for land in 1891 gives a good indication of the value of centrality (Fig. 8.6). From northeast to southwest, that is, from fringe to the centre of town, it ranged from one to three dollars per square foot; and the Desautels family, for example, holders of a dozen properties in the vicinity, promptly rebuilt their more valuable corner lots, while their mid-block lots were rebuilt more slowly and with smaller structures. Some of the burnt-out lots farthest from the centre remained undeveloped for more than a decade, listed on the tax roll at zero value, with “ruins of a stone house.”
Consistent with its “main street” functions, St. Mary Street was built up in the 1830s, and rebuilt in the 1850s, for a great diversity of activities – shops, storage cellars, in the rear a smithy or oven, above the shops comfortable residences for the grain merchant, hardware dealer, or pharmacist, three- or four-room apartments for families, a room behind the shop for the marginal shoemaker or trunkmaker, and little attic rooms for apprentices, shop clerks, and servants. Clark’s bakery is a good example (Fig. 8.7) with its grocery shop in front and bakehouse in the rear. On numerous corners were eating places, drinking places, and boarding houses. Judges of the 1840s repeatedly fined François Chef for leaving his horse and cart standing in the street at midnight, or allowing his tenants to disturb the peace. We’ll see more of Chef and Clark and their neighbours, but the diversity of their interests and activities stems from the advantageous situation of the street in the overall network.
The variety of structures and layouts ensured persistence of that social diversity, with a wider range of rents than on most streets, and a wider range of ages, family sizes, and origins. With St. Lawrence “Main,” whose diversity is still famous and functional today, and several other strips, the axial streets or “main drags” of the town were distinctive habitats of diversity. Amounting to one street segment in ten, they functioned to knit together people, activities, and sites to capture those distinctive urban advantages of agglomeration.9
Layout of a Neighbourhood
The lots along the original matrix road were laid out in the French-régime tradition as “long lots” stretching back from the waterfront, by an easy-to-implement survey (chain measure from a baseline). The layout gave each farmer access to road and river, with roughly equal amounts of bottomland or woodlot. The long lots can be seen on the oldest maps. Subdivided over the years to accommodate heirs, the boundary lines did not meet St. Mary Street at a square corner, but at an angle of about 70 degrees, producing city lots with peculiar diamond shapes. In the 1830s, to exploit the frontage on “the Great Main Street of the Faubourg,” owners built diamond-shaped houses, and half a century later, when city council ordered the buildings on the north side torn down for the widening, they compensated several of the evicted tenants for their rugs – cut on the bias to fit those angled rooms, rugs they could not use in the space they would rent next.10
Those property lines proved valuable in our construction of GIS layers for 1880. To warp and anchor historic maps for overlay on the modern engineering map of the city, we could not rely on the corners of landmark buildings as control points because so few buildings had survived. But the property lines matched. Thus the most permanent and dependable features were purely imaginary lines, imposed in the seventeenth-century survey and jealously guarded as markers of ownership. After providing soup and bread for fire victims, the next most pressing demand was restoration of those property lines. On the 26th, two weeks after the fire, baker William Clarke demanded that the city surveyor forthwith stake out the alignment of St. Mary Street so that he and his neighbours could survey and rebuild their fences in this vast “field of ruins.”
Reconstruction at the Scale of a Lot
The destruction of buildings on neighbouring lots created unexpected opportunities to square up the diamond-shaped lots and consolidate the buildings. Customary law framed the mutual accommodation of owners in sharing the costs of their mitoyenneté: building and maintaining the fence along the line between them, a party wall or pignon, sometimes jointly owned chimneys. The adjustments, by an “an exchange of triangles,” had a decided payoff in terms of the solidity, maintenance, and convenience of the buildings. Louis Chef (brother of François) and his neighbour Trefflé Goyet agreed to trade triangles, and, after several weeks of dispute and the arbitration of skilled masons, Goyet accepted Chef’s plan to raise the party wall to a greater height than his own. At least a dozen pairs of neighbours negotiated such adjustments of boundaries and party walls (Fig. 8.8).
Fig. 8.8. Pairs of neighbouring properties involved in exchanges of triangles. Near Brock Street are the properties of Louis Chef (A), his neighbour Trefflé Goyette (B), and his brother François Chef (C). (Sources: Map layers of lots are based on the Cane Map of 1846 and the Goad Atlas of 1881.)
Fig. 8.9. Plan and section of J. Terroux house. The presence of stone on the rear wall versus brick on the street façade suggests the reuse of ruins in reconstruction after the 1852 fire. (Source: BAnQ, Expropriation de la rue Notre Dame Est, TP11,S2,SS2,SSS42,D184-1891-10.)
The layout of streets and lanes gave each property a front and a back. All that diversity of activities was hidden behind a continuous line of façades designed, little by little, to convey urbanity, a certain civility, respectability, and order.11 For greater elegance, neighbouring owners also seized opportunities to cooperate on the design of their façades. Nextdoor neighbours Terroux and Sénécal signed an agreement to match the height of the stone course, the style of stonework (boucharde, demi-boucharde, piqué), the same seven-foot setback from the street, the colour of the paint, and the design of the dormer windows.12
Ordinarily, an owner developed or re-developed within the rigid lines of authority over a single lot and maintained or renovated the rooms within the envelope of the existing walls. But when the capital invested in roof and walls was destroyed, the range of choices was suddenly larger. The owner could consider putting up a taller building, or building deeper into the lot, to profit from greater demand for rental space. And when destruction extended over an entire neighbourhood, as it did in 1852, neighbouring owners were faced with a narrowing of their financial options and a widening of their design choices, subject, of course, to negotiation.
Reconstruction on such a scale was handicapped by shortages of materials and labour. Within a month after the fire, local lumber dealers were ordering cedar beams by the hundreds “to be delivered in the spring,” in lengths of 40, 36, or 32 feet. The contracts mentioned here, rather early on the scene, advanced larger-than-usual sums to the builders, and some of the owners arranged to supply the stone or lime. Charles Terroux, to rebuild a property at the corner of Montcalm, arranged for re-use of the tumbled stone and brick from another property he owned in the next block (see Fig. 8.9). Masons and carpenters promptly moved into Montreal from surrounding villages, along with others who could deploy a horse and cart for hauling stone and gravel.
A more powerful constraint was the scarcity of capital, since there were alternative opportunities for investors in the mid-1850s: development of the Grand Trunk Railway, industrial expansion at hydraulic sites along the Lachine Canal, and larger bank buildings, stores, and warehouses in the commercial centre. Despite pressure to rebuild and restore income as fast as possible, it was four years before property values in St. Mary Street reached the level before the fire, and a decade before all the lots were rebuilt. The time it took to rebuild was a function of the condition of the building, the value of the location, and the assets the owner could mobilize. Clarke was one of the few who rebuilt that very summer. Fire is capricious, and his house seems to have suffered less damage than most; by January 1853 he had made repairs enough to rent part of the building and operate his bakery. Contracts like his indicate the high priority for repairing buildings damaged but not utterly destroyed, and re-erecting smaller ones on side streets that could be roofed before winter. (In the Montreal climate, most construction was scheduled April through October, and it was essential to roof the building by 1 November.) The layout of Clarke’s building (Fig. 8.7) reveals the original arrangement of connecting rooms – en enfilade – with numerous doors to the street, yard, and back lane.
A large property owner scattered his assets in a neighbourhood. Their concentration made it easier to collect the rents, oversee repairs, and negotiate annual leases, but too tight a concentration incurred a risk of severe losses in even a small fire.13 This is the kind of information available from the MAP databases for property taxrolls of 1848, 1880, and 1903. An owner of multiple properties could sell one lot to raise money for reconstruction on another. Jason Sims, a lumber merchant, prospered from the situation but was nevertheless short of cash and sold his interest in the lumberyard to his partner. The wealthiest owner in the Faubourg was the Molson family; their wealth was older, more exclusive; their investments extended to the centre of town, rooted in high-level political connections, and they controlled long lines of credit in rural trades in liquor and groceries. The fire stopped short of the substantial brewery John Molson owned at the intersection of Papineau Square but destroyed extensive properties his brother William owned in St. Mary Street. John purchased a competitor’s ruined foundry, and William took advantage of the situation to acquire additional land; he rebuilt a church he had endowed, but he did not give priority to (re)development of his lots in St. Mary Street. The fact that William Molson waited so long to redevelop and never fully rebuilt all his lots is probably a result of his greater investment opportunities. As an industrialist (distillery, gas works, and brewery), he operated on a citywide scale, while Clarke, Chef, and Desautels, confined to a neighbourhood, needed to restore their rental assets as quickly as possible. One of the surprises of our exercise was the evidence that smaller investors played such important roles in the reconstruction.
The largest of the local insurance companies had promptly collapsed under the weight of demands. To supply additional capital, an unprecedented arrangement was devised. A firm incorporated as the Trust and Loan Company of Upper Canada borrowed money from British lenders associated with Baring’s and made loans to Montreal property owners. The company was a client of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and his law partner, and the banking arrangements in Britain were negotiated by Francis Hincks, the high-ranking inspector general of Canada. The municipal corporation (that is, the mayor and city council) certified each borrower and guaranteed the loans, with a further guarantee from the legislature of the United Province of Canada.14
In mid-March 1853, François Chef and his wife Catherine Roussin were awarded four of those guaranteed loans (1,850 pounds) to rebuild a block of four houses on St. Mary. On the 4th of May, their contractor started excavation, and by September the construction site extended the full breadth of the lot so that their neighbour William Clarke complained they were blocking the cartway they were legally bound to share. By January François Chef’s property was producing income. Little “clumps” of loans suggest that neighbouring owners were discussing the options and operating in close touch. On the other side of St. Mary Street, Chef’s brother Louis also began building in May: he signed with a mason on the 17th, took out four loans on the 18th, and in September obtained a fifth loan (400 pounds), adding up to the largest sum on record.15
Design of a Building
The interdependence of choices produced readaptations affecting at once the scale of the block, the lot, the building, and its internal arrangements.16 The size of the building footprint is constrained by dimensions of the lot and its frontage on the street, and this necessarily frames the internal layout and the shapes and dimensions of the rooms. Conversely, an owner’s notions of comfort, convenience, and market demand called for certain sizes of rooms, their position at front or rear, their contact with outdoor light and ventilation, and relative access or privacy. The structural choices affected also the choice of materials and techniques: wall composition, and exterior cladding, structure and covering of the roof – at costs based on availability of materials and labour. The new regulations for fire-resistant brick or stone cladding added to the cost of “replacement” and invited close attention to the market.
Let us consider first the specifications for a very modest building, strictly residential, in a smaller cross street. Just a week after the fire, Marguerite Forté signed a contract with builder Joseph Turcot. The attached specifications outline a wood structure, the walls to be clad with brick, the roof with sheet iron, to satisfy the new fire regulations. The agreement described a good weatherproof house. It is supported on brick posts and hemlock beams without expensive deep foundations. From the details and measurements in the “specs,” we can draw the plan and apply a SketchUp model to see how it must have looked (Figs. 8.10 and 8.11). The house was small (16 feet by 20 feet), divided in the traditional way into three rooms, one at the front and two small ones at the back. Details of window frames and baseboards underlined the goal for a fine windproof construction, and the dormer windows indicate that the attic will be inhabited, suggesting about 600 square feet of interior space in all. Further details, such as the stone landing at front and back entrances, baseboards, and double windows, make it clear that this little house is no temporary shack but a building intended to last. Marguerite Forté was at once answering an immediate need and investing in the future.17
Fig. 8.10. House of Marguerite Forté: a reconstruction based on specifications. (Sources: BAnQ, Act of Simard 14 July 1852; Goad Atlas of 1881.)
Fig. 8.11. House of Marguerite Forte: model based on the specifications. (Source: BAnQ, Act of Simard 14 July 1852.)
What the Chef brothers built was more substantial and illustrates the magnitude of the risks and the role of personal ambitions. François Chef, on his lot facing Brock Street (48 feet front), replaced several small wooden houses with a single building, thereby increasing total floor area to twice what it was before, and ensuring a greater stream of rents. His building (Fig. 8.12, lower drawing) met the new rules for fire-resistant materials but employed a traditional design: cut stone lintels, sash windows, a third-storey attic with dormer windows, shops with separate entry, and windows a little larger. Across the street, his younger half-brother Louis Chef put up a much larger building, 80 feet front by 36 feet deep, three storeys, with four shop fronts, four dwellings above, storage cellars, and stylish ornament: an elegant rounded corner, moulded capitals, pilasters bouchardés, architrave, bevelled consoles, and cut stone fireplaces. The two brothers shared some features: ground floor commercial, and two floors of dwellings above, much the same layout, with masonry walls and metal roof. But François chose a cautious design – sturdy, traditional, with stone façade and smaller shop windows – while Louis adopted an ostentatious brick décor with larger show windows, entablatures and arches, like what could be seen at the very centre of town.
The examples illustrate two important principles of real estate development. First is the pertinence of the saying, “Time is money.” Because the builder’s contract and reconstruction loan specified conditions of future payments, an owner needed time to pay off the lot to a former owner (often over five or ten years), to repay the construction loan, and collect rents from tenants in quarterly or – more often – monthly instalments, often higher in summer than winter. Each party to a contract – purchase, lease, or loan – was concerned with protection for the capital owing. People like Mrs. Forté and the Chef brothers were juggling short- and long-term considerations: the arrival of winter, the horizon of the loan, the vacancy rate, the cost of insurance, the risk of recession, the risk of dying, and the expectation of inheriting.
Fig. 8.12. Elevations of houses built in 1853 by the brothers Louis Chef (above) and François Chef (below).(Sources: BAnQ, L.Chef dit Vadeboncoeur, vs – La Cité de Montréal, TP11,S2,SS2,SSS42,D375; Expropriation de la rue Notre Dame Est, 1891, TP11, S2, SS2, SSS42, D184-1891-39.)
Second, design is a circular process. It implies compromise and adjustment among four objectives: (1) the composition (apparent in plan and elevation), (2) the configuration of rooms, their number and connections, (3) techniques of construction, and (4) the financial and legal constraints on feasibility. The designer may address one objective after the other, moving from the larger urban scale down to the look and the details, considering first, perhaps, the budget, then moving to the program, the composition, and the construction, but re-visiting each objective to achieve a synthesis in the final plan. The zoom displays the encounter of the several concerns. What tenants would they hope to attract to this particular site? Who would extend credit for the project? An owner’s social network may provide assets to support its borrowing power or impede it. The architectural choices tell us about both the means and the ambitions of a family. The process is essential to understand the thinking of Louis and François Chef and Mrs. Forté and to appreciate their strategies of design and the social position to which each of them aspired.
There was in St. Mary Street a network of Irish Catholic families, a network of Protestant families, and several extensive networks of French Canadians.18 The Chef dit Vadeboncoeur family offers a good example of manoeuvres observed in all the others to achieve a degree of upward mobility. Because real estate in a fast-growing city tends, over the long run, to appreciate, a hold over a scrap of land made possible “success stories.” Fewer than 15 per cent of householders inside the city limits owned a property, fewer still owned more than one lot. Like François Chef (father of François and Louis), many of the people who subdivided these blocks in the 1790s were independent craftsmen – master baker, master mason, or master carter. Little by little, they became “rentiers,” deriving a significant share of their income from their property, and several of their sons-in-law and grandsons became notaries and doctors.
A legal mechanism critical to their strategy for holding onto property was the substitution, by which a couple made a legacy or a gift of property to their great-grandchildren, “born or to be born.” The children and grandchildren were mere “substitutes,” caretakers or managers, able to enjoy the use and income from the property, and obliged to maintain its value for their offspring, the ultimate owners. In 1840, that was the strategy of François Chef (the father) and his second wife Monique Brousseau, who wrote wills that gave their son Louis the use and enjoyment of properties they had acquired in the 1830s. The will put ownership in the hands of Louis’ children and placed Louis himself under an obligation to conserve the value of the property.19 This legal arrangement influenced the design of a building. It usually favoured a sound construction that was better served by simpler and solid details, in order to last longer and minimize maintenance, rather than an impressive stylistic statement. It favoured also a flexible interior layout to insure long-term adaptations for a wide range of tenants, households, and street-level shops.
Their trusteeship involved oversight by the court-appointed curator and a family council weighted with uncles and great-uncles. Rooted in the customary law of France, and carried into the Civil Code of 1867, the mechanism was employed as well by the Irish Catholic and Protestant families of St. Mary Street.20 It was often accompanied by clauses in the will that insisted that the legacy was intended to feed and support these children and should therefore be regarded as untouchable by creditors.
When the City cut that unusually wide swath for Craig Street, it trimmed some of the properties “grevés” under the substitution mechanism. Under court supervision, these moneys, too, were applied to rebuild on the remaining lots, to restore the incomes of aging parents and the value of the assets destined for the ultimate owners, the great-grandchildren still minors or not yet born.21
The elder François had set up both sons, François and Louis, in the same way, with small properties under a substitution, but at the time of the fire the two sons were not in the same financial position, nor did they have the same aspirations. François by this time owned fourteen properties, most of them with small wood buildings; he was able to sell or borrow on the properties that did not burn; he invested with prudence and ultimately left a valuable estate to his three children. While the masons were still at work, his wife, Catherine Roussin, died, having re-affirmed on her deathbed that she wanted her property divided equally among their children. Each would have a usufructuary enjoyment and an obligation to transmit it to their children “insaisissable” by any creditors. Her husband carried out the rebuilding and the division.
Louis, on the other hand, had just emerged from a bankruptcy proceeding. In a rash of business failures in 1848, he had lost the contents of the grocery he had operated for ten years. He chose to live in the handsome new building and operate his shop there, but he soon found himself unable to make the payments on the five loans he had taken out, in trouble again over the line of credit to the grocery. The creditors sued, branding him an “Absconded Debtor”; the trust company turned the new building over to the City (guarantor of the five loans), and the City eventually sold it at auction. So far as we know, this is the only loan that was not repaid. Louis’ wife Sophie Guilbault retained at least the modest assets she brought into the marriage, and their son Louis Napoléon was emancipated at fifteen to try his skill in the grocery trade independent of his father. Thus, despite their parents’ strategy of equal endowments, one son was able to provide houses for all of his grandchildren, the other none.22
The reconstruction of the 1850s is impressive; at the end of four years the taxable value of the whole array of properties on St. Mary Street was restored. In 1891 that success nourished an illusion on the part of city council and engineers that the same kind of uses and buildings could again be profitably rebuilt. To cope with heavier traffic on St. Mary Street, they wanted to widen it by thirty feet. This was an understandable response to the growth of the city, the extension of the overall street network, accompanied by heavier paving, street-based utilities like larger water mains, gas mains, trunk sewer, and in 1892 introduction of the electric tram. (The first line ran along St. Mary Street.) This was just one of a large number of widenings carried out.23 The authorities imagined that the foreshortened lots would be of greater value and yield greater taxes than ever, and they tried to ensure this by requiring three-storey construction in brick or stone with shop front windows.
But those expectations were not realistic. As the city grew, St. Mary Street did not acquire the higher-order centrality of St. Lawrence Main. Railways had made the ferry obsolete. Craig Street (the new firebreak street) was diverting traffic from St. Mary. On the waterfront lots, industries were expanding, notably Molson’s brewery and the Canadian Rubber factory; and they did not provide customers for “main street” shops.24 The expropriation of 1891 produced a flurry of selling and long delays in reconstruction. Some of the owners were affected by another expropriation in 1894 to widen and “tunnel” Brock Street (one of the cross streets), another project that further disrupted tenancy, traffic, neighbouring relations, and everyday life,25 and in the 1910s the provincial legislature backed massive acquisitions by the Canadian Pacific Railway for a marshalling yard and a grand passenger station. As more distant suburbs developed, the street carried more and more truck and auto traffic. It has since been re-imagined as an expressway, and in the 1970s the fronting properties were, for a third time, destroyed.
From the St. Mary Street case, one would have to ask: How common were these contingencies – fire and municipal expropriation? Every square metre of the city is owned by somebody, and the way the land is developed depends on who owns it, the capital the owner can deploy, the advantages of access to other parts of town, the kinds of services the city provides, and the obligations and taxes the owner pays. The municipal administration chartered in 1840 was structured as a corporation of property owners. The property tax was its principal source of revenue, and to this day amounts to two thirds of the revenues of the City of Montreal. Implicit in that structure is a “growth machine” dynamic that in 1890 was already in contradiction with family interests.26 The episodes we’ve described challenged family strategies and smashed expectations of a great many people, but the neighbourhood-wide impact also synchronized the options, creating opportunities to rearrange spaces and reconstruct the city.
We can draw some tentative conclusions of three types. First, with respect to HGIS, we have pointed out the value of the “zoom.” It’s now a familiar technique: your query to find a restaurant, a zoom to the address, and another click to zoom out to see how it’s situated in relation to the route you might take. The ability to move in close may not be so obvious to the historian who is considering whether to invest in mastering the techniques of GIS or to an academic team engaged in designing the scope of a new venture into HGIS. For MAP, we adopted a rather high level of precision – individual addresses, accurate street widths and buildings as small as the privy – in order to exploit particular sources for a particular city (notably the Goad Atlas of 1881). That choice, as it turns out, has allowed the integration of a large array of data and collaborations toward a great variety of scholarly objectives. Given a city so rich in sources, we wanted to open up the many possibilities. Some of the original maps are fragile; they appear at different scales, and they are housed in different archives. We wanted to allow for a wide range of queries, to lead to deeper inquiry, essentially a pedagogy of research into the urban habitat.
Second, from the standpoint of the history of architecture, the HGIS has suggested some possibilities we are excited about. One is the retrieval of those “ghosts” of buildings such that we can recover the dimensions of the all-wood habitat that has disappeared from Montreal. For most of those little wooden houses that constituted the vernacular architecture of the first half of the nineteenth century, no formal plans were preserved, but the GIS sharpens clues that lie hidden in the foundations and cellars of subsequent buildings whose plans have survived. From the construction contracts and specifications, we can recover room sizes, layouts, materials and techniques of building, and some of the reasoning behind the design, economic objectives, or even whims of the owner. For Mrs. O’Brien, the builder promised the best brick Mr. Adams makes, laid in such a way as to produce “un joli devant de maison.”
Inquiry invites theory, and the GIS serves well the space syntax theory that interprets the habitat as a set of nested spaces in which we move and circulate. That literature suggests useful schematics and numeric codes for the way spaces are connected and nested, pointing to the connectivity of Mrs. Forté’s kitchen, or the strategic introduction of a hallway when a house is made into a boarding house.
A third set of findings are practices of interest to social historians as well as historians of architecture. The GIS makes it possible to watch the city developing over time and to move back and forth between the urban plan as a whole and a particular neighbourhood or property. This calls for a theory of design, inviting us to situate each singular building project in its social context as a response to opportunities and constraints, macro and micro. This is a promising development if we want to discern the significance of the myriad minute changes implemented by individuals and families in their real estate commitments and strategies. GIS offers a platform sensitive to choices of scale and design. It allows the user to discern the effects of legal and economic constraints and to interpret the response of a social network to spatial opportunities.
By exploiting the tools of the geographer and the urban planner, and by sharing lines of inquiry from both social history and the history of architecture, we have uncovered collaborations among neighbouring property owners and family strategies for protecting assets. The small players of St. Mary Street introduce some nuance to the grand narrative of Montreal fortunes. The expropriation of 1891 shows they had little influence on municipal affairs, but they were not without resources – a scrap of real estate, some craftsmanship, some tools, skills in networking and negotiation, family loyalties, and a planning horizon of four generations.
1 For a broader view of the MAP project, see Robert C. H. Sweeny and Sherry Olson, “MAP: Montréal l’avenir du passé, Sharing Geodatabases Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Geomatica 57, no. 2 (2003): 145–54; http://mun.ca/mapm/. A dozen Montreal scholars and a dozen graduate students initiated the project in 2000. A grant from Geoide, one of Canada’s National Centres of Excellence, supported for one year a full-time technician, Rosa Orlandini. We are grateful for the continuous participation and insights of Robert C. H. Sweeny and Jason Gilliland; for initial insights of David Hanna, Jean-Claude Robert, Kevin Henry, and Rosalyn Trigger; for sources and technical support from Ville de Montréal (Service des archives, Service de géomatique); McGill Libraries (Special Collections, Digital Collections, and Electronic Resources); archivists of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ), and grants from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada to Olson, Gilliland, and Danielle Gauvreau. Sammy Yehias, student in Architecture, Université Laval, created the SketchUp models.
2 Sherry Olson and Patricia A. Thornton, Peopling the North American City: Montreal, 1840–1900 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011); Danielle Gauvreau and Sherry Olson, “Mobilité sociale dans une ville industrielle nord-américaine: Montréal, 1880–1900,” Annales de Démographie Historique no. 1 (2008): 89–114; Roderick MacLeod and Mary Anne Poutanen, “Proper Objects of This Institution: Working Families, Children and the British and Canadian School in Nineteenth Century Montreal,” Historical Studies in Education 20, no. 2 (2008): 22–54; Robert C. H. Sweeny, “Risky Spaces: The Montreal Fire Insurance Company, 1817–20,” In The Territories of Business, edited by C. Bellavance and P. Lanthier (Sainte-Foy: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 2004), 9–23.
3 The key cartographic sources are J. Adams, Map of the City and Suburbs of Montreal, 1825; James Cane, Topographical and Pictorial Map of the City of Montreal, 1:5100 (Montreal: Robert W.S. Mackay, 1846); Frederick W. Blaiklock, E. H. Charles Lionais, and Louis-Wilfrid Sicotte, Cadastral Plans, City of Montreal (Montréal, E.H.C. Lionais, 1880); C. E. Goad, Atlas of the City of Montreal showing all Buildings and Names of Owners (C.E. Goad Ltd., 1881). Of particular importance for situating addresses, owners, residents, and events on the lots are municipal taxrolls of property and rental valuations of occupants (MAP digital databases for 1848 and 1880 and 1903); census records (MAP digital databases for 1842, 1881, and 1901); and Lovell’s Montreal Directory (accessible at ). For this stretch of St. Mary Street, we collected additional data from municipal taxrolls for 1852 (before the fire), each year 1853–1857, and at five-year intervals 1861–1906; and from microfilms Census of Canada runs for 1861, 1871, 1891, and 1911.
4 At various stages we have employed GIS softwares ArcView 3x and ArcGIS 10; architects’ softwares AutoCad and Google SketchUp 8 Pro (the freeware version will serve); and the relational database FoxPro 2.6. For the last, any database format such as Paradox or MS-Access can be substituted, and databases can be created or independently accessed in Excel.
5 For economic and social theorization of the production of urban space, see Henri Lefebvre, Espace et politique, Le droit à la ville II (Paris: Anthropos, 1972); Pierre Bourdieu, Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique (Paris: Droz, 1972); Alan Pred, “Place as Historically Contingent Process: Structuration and the Time-Geography of Becoming Places,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 74, no. 2 (1984): 279–97; Jeremy Boulton, Neighbourhood and Society: A London Suburb in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
6 “English extracts, conflagration at Montreal,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), 4 November 1852, 6, as reprinted from the Illustrated News (London) of 17 August. See also La Minerve, 13 and 15 July 1852; The Montreal Witness, 12 July 1852.
7 Proceedings of the General Relief Committee. The new reservoir had been emptied for repairs; property owners and city officials had ignored repeated earlier regulations that called for brick or stone cladding and fire-resistant roofing in “main streets” as well as the central core now known as “Old Montreal.” At the end of twelve months, the committee made an accounting of the 26,000 pounds they had spent on relief. Further details of citizen responses and references on the fire are reported in François Dufaux and Sherry Olson, “Reconstruire Montréal, rebâtir sa fortune,” Revue de Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec 1 (2009): 44–57.
8 We refer to two types of analysis: A “typo-morphological analysis” sorts streets in terms of the phase of development in the historical process of urban expansion and transformation, as in G. Caniggia and G. L. Maffei, Interpreting Basic Building: Architectural Composition and Building Typology (Firenze: Aliena Editrice, 2001). A “space syntax” analysis provides a mathematical index of the relative accessibility of a street segment as part of the street network. For the logic and methods of space syntax, see Bill Hillier, Space Is the Machine: A Configurational Theory of Architecture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Julienne Hanson, Decoding Homes and Houses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Laura Vaughan, “The Spatial Syntax of Urban Segregation,” Progress in Planning 67, no. 3 (2007): 205–94.
9 J. Peponis, E. Hadjinikolaou, et al., “The Spatial Core of Urban Culture,” Ekistics 334/335 (1989): 43–55, comparing various Greek cities, argue that 10 per cent of streets make up the core of a city, with higher integration values according to space syntax measures. On segregation in Montreal, see Jason A. Gilliland and Sherry Olson, 2010. Residential segregation in the industrializing city: a closer look. Urban Geography 31, no. 1 (2010): 29–58.
10 BAnQ, Expropriation de la rue Notre Dame Est. We found details for 59 properties (all on the northwest side), building plans and elevations for 39 of them. The properties discussed here, at the corner of Brock street (now Beaudry), come from files 29 (François Chef) and 325 (Louis Chef).
11 All of the notarized acts refer to BAnQ, Fonds Cour supérieure, District judiciaire de Montréal, Greffes de notaires, identified by the name of the notary and date of the act.
12 BAnQ, Act of Dagen, 19 August 1852.
13 On the risks associated with fire insurance see Robert C.H. Sweeny, “Risky Spaces: The Montreal Fire Insurance Company, 1817–20,” In The Territories of Business, edited by C. Bellavance and P. Lanthier (Sainte-Foy: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 2004), 9–23.
14 The arrangements were presumably lucrative for all parties and gave the company a toehold for loans in rural areas of Lower Canada (Quebec) over the next half-century. The loans for reconstruction are recorded in the repertory of notary T.-B. Doucet, 10 January to 10 June 1853.
15 The Canadian pound was discounted at about 20 per cent below the British pound sterling; and in 1854 a new currency was introduced, the Canadian dollar, at $4 to the Canadian pound.
16 These are the kinds of questions asked in urban morphology. See Jason Gilliland, “Redimensioning the Urban Vascular System: Street Widening Operations in Montreal, 1850–1918,” in Transformations of Urban Form, edited by G. Corona and G. L. Maffei (Firenze: Alinea Editrice, 1999), FK2.7–11; G. Cataldi, “From Muratori to Caniggia: The Origins and Development of the Italian School of Design Typology,” Urban Morphology 7, no. 1 (2003): 19–34; François Dufaux, “A New World from Two Old Ones: The Evolution of Montreal’s Tenements, 1850–1892,” Urban Morphology 4, no. 1 (2000): 9–19. GIS has made a valuable addition to the arsenal of computer aided design (CAD) that architects use to handle the mass of engineering data, spatial dimensions of the many components of a project, and the temporal sequencing of the construction process.
17 BAnQ, Act of Simard, 14 July 1852. The specification for pruche usually refers to hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, relatively rot-resistant. Pine was used for floors and ceilings as well as beams. The minimal foundations reserve the option for moving a building, as was rather common for wood structures, e.g., Act of Simard, 23 September 1853.
18 The Irish network included the Cuddy and Morley families and another lineage of O’Briens. The Protestant network was centred on the Lambs and Shortleys, intermarried, bakers like Clarke and the French Canadian O’Brien. Other French Canadian networks are those of the Martel and Dumaine, the Dufresne, the Desautels and Goyet. The modest percentage of owner households (ca. 15%) can be appraised from the taxrolls of 1848, 1880, and 1903. See Robert C. H. Sweeny, “Property and Gender: Lessons from a 19th-Century Town,” Journal of Canadian Studies (London) 22 (2006/7): 9–34.; Stephen Hertzog and Robert D. Lewis, “A City of Tenants: Homeownership and Social Class in Montreal, 1847–1881,” The Canadian Geographer 304 (1986): 316–23.
19 François Chef had also an elder son, Jean-Baptiste, also a carter, married about 1819, and Jean-Baptiste had seven children. The management of the properties can be traced in BAnQ, Tutelles (acts of guardianship) between 1837 and 1894.
20 BAnQ, Acts of Labadie 14 May 1840, 26 June 1845, and 14 December 1853; and Act of Belle, 28 September 1852. Other St. Mary Street owners who used the substitution mechanism were J. H. Richelieu (Act of C. F. Papineau 23 December 1852); Pierre Desautels (Act of N. B. Doucet 23 March 1817); François Désautels (Act of J. Belle 11 November 1851); Marguerite Désautels (Act of Hétu 26 February 1880); John Hogarth (Act of Busby 23 February 1847; Tutelles, 8 June 1853); Charles O’Brien (Act of Baron 4 October 1822); and Joseph Léveillé. Genealogy of the Chef family was compiled using the Drouin index to Catholic marriages of men and women, microfilmed registers of Paroisse Notre-Dame, and indexes compiled by members of the Quebec Family History Society and the Latter-day Saints.
21 See also BAnQ, Expropriation de la rue Craig. Financing objectives are explicit in a sale confirmed by Act of Lapparé, 21 November 1853. The holograph will of Joseph Augustin Labadie, recorded for probate by Act of Gaudry, 1 July 1854, makes explicit his intent to cover legacies and debts by selling all his burnt properties in the Faubourg, except those at the corner of Saint-Ignace and the corner of Panet, and to use the surplus to rebuild on those two lots.
22 In the first bankruptcy, Louis Chef lost three properties he thought he had secured but held onto three others that were hedged by belonging to his children, two and five years old. He was released by his creditors fourteen months before the fire (BAnQ, Dossiers des faillis). At the time of the widening of Brock Street, he made an unsuccessful attempt to recover the property from the party to whom the City had sold it (BAnQ, Expropriation de la rue Brock, 14 May 1894).
23 An even larger array of widenings was contemplated, as shown by homologation lines visible on the Goad Atlas of 1881. A line established by city surveyor and approved by city council warned owners that further investment within the zone to be “taken” would not be compensated. On the expropriation process, see Jason Gilliland, “The Creative Destruction of Montreal: Street Widenings and Urban (Re)development in the Nineteenth Century,” Urban History Review 31, no. 1 (2002): 37–51.
24 A suite of space syntax integration measurements reveals the growing importance of St. Catherine Street as the main east-west artery and, conversely, the declining importance of St. Mary.
25 BAnQ, Expropriation de la rue Brock.
26 See Harvey Molotch, “The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place,” American Journal of Sociology 82, no. 2 (1976): 309–32; Robin L. Einhorn, Property Rules, Political Economy in Chicago, 1833–1872 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).