A new exhibition on the large windows of the Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex (EV) along Guy Street offers a peek into the storied past of the downtown neighbourhood surrounding Quartier Concordia.
The display, Urban Champions: A Neighbourhood Shaped over 300 Years, features historic photographs of various landmarks, and brief bios of six key figures who contributed to the architectural development of the area surrounding the downtown Sir George Williams Campus.
The earliest featured individual is Sulpician superior François Vachon de Belmont (1645-1732), and the latest is civic advocate Phyllis Lambert, who founded the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA).
“During their respective eras, they each brought to the table different perspectives on the potential of this neighbourhood,” explains Concordia’s Director of Special Projects and Cultural Affairs Clarence Epstein. “That’s what we’re trying to do in this first exhibition: illustrate the urban character traits of a 300-year-old area, that was shaped by many individuals — many leaders, many residents, and many champions.”
Religious groups led the development of key neighbourhoods outside the walls of Old Montreal, including the area now known as Quartier Concordia. It began with the construction of large residences to house religious orders, such as the Grand Séminaire de Montréal and the Grey Nuns Mother House.
Residential and commercial development followed, including the construction of row houses along Mackay Street that still house many of Concordia’s offices. The building boom slowed as a result of the two World Wars, but picked up again with the grand visions of Montreal’s mayor during the 1960s, Jean Drapeau.
One notable Concordia figure featured in the exhibition is Fraser Fulton, who as chancellor of Sir George Williams University (1965-71) spearheaded the construction of the Henry F. Hall Building. “It falls into that same era, for better or for worse, when big concrete buildings were replacing lots of Victorian and Edwardian construction,” Epstein says.
Although his name does not often pop up in discussions of Concordia’s institutional development, Fulton’s vision for the downtown campus is strongly reflected in the current makeup of Quartier Concordia, Epstein says. “He really was the one who promoted this campus plan, and its inception, with the Hall Building and the row houses surrounding it, acting as part of an agora for the university community to gather.”
With the arrival of large numbers of university students in the neighbourhood, the need for more commercial offerings grew exponentially. Businessman and architect Johnny Vago, who opened more than 150 bars and restaurants in Montreal, was happy to oblige.
However, before all of the area’s charms were completely buried beneath neon signs and new construction, Lambert founded Heritage Montreal and launched a concerted effort to begin preserving at least some of the area’s historic landmarks and buildings.
“We have an individual who sees well beyond her own centre (the CCA) as the future of this area, and who understands that the collective is responsible for revitalizing the neighbourhood,” Epstein says.
The display will be viewable in the Guy-Street windows until the spring. Epstein says he hopes it will give passersby a chance to learn something about the history of the university and its environs without always having to step inside an educational institution. “We intentionally tried not to make it too text-based,” he says. “It seemed easy enough just to have a timeline that gives everybody that sense of 300 years passing visually.”
Epstein says Urban Champions will be followed by other exhibitions, and that work is already underway to develop one that will feature important personalities who lived and worked in the area.
In the following podcast, Concordia's Director of Special Projects and Cultural Affairs Clarence Epstein leads a guided tour of the new exhibition:
• Quartier Concordia