In Montreal's Golden Square Mile – the downtown district that evokes the glory days when the city was Canada's undisputed metropolis, propelled by generations of successful entrepreneurs of Scottish origin – a beautiful Victorian mansion sits on a work site that has been under way since 2011, its sagging façade propped up by support beams.
Such is the sorry state of the former Mount Stephen Club, built in 1880 as a residence for the founding president of Canadian Pacific Railway, George Stephen (later Lord Mount Stephen).
The house, classified as a provincial heritage building and a Canadian National Historic Site, was used as a private club from 1926 to 2011. Later, as the need for private clubs faded, the vast suite of salons and dining rooms was used mainly for private receptions. The interior was magnificent, with its walls panelled in precious wood, its stained-glass windows imported from Italy, its marble chimneys and its gold-plated door handles. The dark corridors made you feel like a lonely character in a 19th-century British novel.
The club, truth be told, was not adapted to the modern restaurant scene. And the building was much too large, and the maintenance too costly, for it to be profitable.
Four years ago, its new owner, Tidan, a real-estate company that owns several apartment buildings and hotels in the area, decided to use the mansion as a prestigious entry hall for an 80-room, 12-storey boutique hotel that was to be built in the back, flanked by underground parking.
The grand old mansion, which was still in perfect condition when Tidan acquired it in 2006, couldn't withstand the excavation, the drilling and the blasting. Cracks appeared on the façade, which began to sag. It will have to be dismantled and rebuilt.
Moreover, according to the Montreal Gazette, Tidan made unauthorized changes. It demolished three chimneys, removed wrought-iron railings, and covered part of the stone exterior with cement siding. The Quebec Ministry of Culture sued the company, which promised to stop all construction work until the damages are repaired. Did Tidan take all necessary precautions to preserve the historic structure? Were the mansion's foundations solidified before the excavation began?
Work on a building of this age and significance should be carried out by experts, and done extremely carefully, Heritage Montreal director Dinu Bumbaru told the Gazette. "It's more than masonry, it's almost like surgery."
One also wonders if the City of Montreal was attentive enough to what was happening on this work site, considering the importance of the building – the only major vestige of the Golden Square Mile south of Sherbrooke Street, and one of its few remaining jewels.
During the 1960s, numerous demolitions – many of which were a result of McGill University's expansion – led to the area's red-brick and stone mansions being replaced with nondescript buildings.
A turning point was the 1973 destruction of the historic Van Horne House. It raised a storm of protests, as people began to realize the irreplaceable value of Montreal's built heritage. But it was too late. Nowadays, you have to go to Boston to see what the Golden Square Mile would have looked like – if the powers that be had bothered to protect it.