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The tellers at the Royal Bank building in Old Montreal.

john morstad The Globe and Mail

It has stood for more than 80 years, cathedral-like in its grandeur and monumentality, an icon from Montreal's heyday as the financial capital of Canada, still open for business.

Now, RBC former head office branch is preparing to shut down its operations at 360 St-Jacques St. W., marking the end of an era and the passing of another symbol of the city's storied past as the country's dominant business and finance centre.

Canada's largest bank, which still calls Montreal home to its head office but long ago shifted key decision-making functions to Toronto, will move its banking operations from the opulent St-Jacques Street location to more modest premises in the nearby Tour de la Bourse in 2012.

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"It's a sad but probably inevitable move. Banks, like any other institutions, have to move on," said Duncan McDowall, a Carleton University historian who specializes in the history of Canadian financial institutions.

"It's a grand, grand building. Going in there is a bit like a religious experience, with the coffered ceilings," he said, adding it's the sort of place humorist Stephen Leacock must have had in mind when he wrote about being "rattled" entering a bank in his short story My Financial Career.

"There is a bit of a lag here. The bank [RBC]probably would have liked to make this decision two or three decades ago" after it moved its head office - which had been located on floors directly above the bank branch - to more modern digs in the just-built Place Ville Marie in 1962.

The decision to leave historic St-Jacques Street comes two years after Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce vacated a similarly imposing neoclassical bank branch just up the street.

Going against the current is Bank of Montreal, which also maintains its nominal head office in the city. It says it's committed to staying put in its sumptuously restored, domed 19th-century head office branch on St-Jacques, at Place d'Armes across from Notre-Dame Basilica.

RBC had no choice but to move out of its historic locale on St-Jacques Street, given that it now occupies less than 20 per cent of the cavernous edifice, but pays rent on the larger space, spokesman Raymond Chouinard said.

The bank reluctantly decided to move after attempts failed to move other departments into the branch, and thus fill up more of the unused space, he said.

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Among the obstacles were technical barriers, such as the difficulty of wiring the building for fibre-optic cable, which is needed to offer customers the fastest and most up-to-date services, he said.

"The move to the [Tour de la Bourse]will allow us to offer the full range of services," he said.

"An old building like this presents major problems."

What is to become of the lavish, architecturally unique site - owned by Time Equities Inc., a New York real estate firm - is up in the air. The building's exterior is protected as part of the city's heritage designation for Old Montreal, but its interior is not, said Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montreal.

"There definitely has to be some kind of strategy. It's not a matter of sending in the heritage police but of finding an appropriate solution that respects the history."





About the building

The Royal Bank of Canada's former head office branch in Montreal was the tallest building in the British Empire when it opened in 1928.

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Constructed at a cost of just under $6.5-million, it towered 21 stories.



The branch, which is set to close in 2012, is located at 360 St. Jacques St. West, in Old Montreal, in the heart of what was once the financial capital of Canada.



The Royal Bank's head office operations were once located in the tower above the bank, one of Montreal's first "skyscrapers."



The exterior stone is Queenston limestone with Stanstead granite.



The architectural style is Florentine palazzo.



Interior details include 45-foot-high cathedral ceilings, bronze fittings and crests, marble counters and hand-painted gilded wood and plaster.

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