Montreal Layers: Chateau Ramezay

My last post talked about the layers of Montreal beneath ground.  Today, I begin a glimpse into the layers of the city that exist above ground, attesting to the city’s evolution over its nearly four centuries, as reflected in the other buildings I visited in just the course of one day.  The focus of this first post is Chateau Ramezay and environs.

Chateau Ramezay

Chateau Ramezay (which is not really a ‘chateau’ in the sense of a castle, but in the later sense of “big house”) was built in 1705 as a private estate for Claude de Ramezay, the governor of Montreal. It has a fascinating history, being transformed eventually as offices of the Compagnie des Indes, which oversaw the fur trade in New France.  After France lost Quebec to the British, the house had an interesting role to play during the early years of the American Revolution as the Americans occupied Montreal.  The Chateau became the headquarters of Benedict Arnold (yes, that Benedict Arnold), and the Continental Congress sent three emissaries, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll, to try to convince Montreal (and Quebec) to join with them against the British.  Alas, they were not successful (or history might have been very different, certainly for Lower Canada), and the British eventually took back the city.

The house then became Government House, the official residence in Montreal of the Governor General of Lower Canada, until 1849.  In 1875, it became home to the Universite de Montreal’s medical school.  In 1893, in one of the earliest examples of historic preservation that I’ve seen, the  Antiquarian and Numismatic Society of Montreal saved Chateau Ramezay from demolition by convincing the city to buy it, and opened it as a museum, library, and portrait gallery in 1895.  It has a collection of about 30,000 objects pertaining to the history of the city.  It was extensively restored from 1997-2010, and an urban garden in the 18th century New French style was added to the property.

The Chateau has a bit of a split personality.  The rooms on the main floor house the museum; there is no real attempt to dress them as rooms from any particular period, although the walls and decorations of the rooms are beautifully restored.  Instead, the focus is on the artifacts–portraits of significant figures in Montreal’s history, some documents pertaining to Benjamin Franklin’s visit, interesting pieces of furniture typical of that used during various periods, and the like.

A few highlights:  A musical prayer book, gorgeous paneled portrait hall, bell from Louisbourg, map of Fort Duquesne (forerunner of Pittsburgh), and a letter from Benjamin Franklin.

  The southern-most hall housed a fascinating temporary exhibit telling the story of the First World War through scent (no, not scratch and sniff–a press of a button wafted the various fragrances to my nose, and no, mustard gas was not one of the scents).  The downstairs area was restored to a stripped-down version of what it would have looked like in the house’s early history, although it is not a working display.  The garden out back was indeed a jewel, featuring both flowers and vegetables.


The area around Chateau Ramezay contains some of Old Montreal’s most scenic streets.  It’s right across the street from Montreal’s City Hall, currently under restoration, and close to an area full of restaurants and small shops.  I caught a glimpse of a gleaming golden dome down the street, and I had to find out what it was…

On the way, I passed an interesting church, the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon Secours.  It’s one of Montreal’s oldest, having been constructed in 1771. It was a pilgrimage site for sailors in the 19th century, and is sometimes called the Sailors’ Church. The photo on the right (below) shows the side facing the port.  This also gave a clue to the name of the building with the golden dome.

Bonsecours Market was built between 1842-1847 to serve as Montreal’s primary public market, but also served as City Hall from 1852-1878 (when the building across the street from Chateau Ramezay was completed).  It even briefly served a stint as the meeting place for the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. It was closed in 1963 as a market, but was saved from demolition and transformed into a multipurpose facility, with meeting space, offices, and an assortment of boutiques on the main floor (very much reminding me of some of those in the Distillery District in Toronto.)

Next:  The Place d’Armes:  Gothic to Deco