CANADA

Montreal

A Fine Collection of Historic Buildings Remade as Inns

The rooms in Montreal’s Auberge du Vieux-Port, built in 1882 as a warehouse, have kept their original stone walls and wood floors

The Auberge du Vieux-Port, in an 1882 warehouse, uses its bare stone walls, broad-beamed ceilings and hardwood floors to give guests the kind of atmospheric shelter big chains can’t provide.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

“FIFTY YEARS ago,” says Gaetan Trottier, “there was a project to destroy all of Old Montreal, and to build a highway along the waterfront.” He says this while standing in the Pierre du Calvet House, built in 1725. It has withstood four centuries of Montreal weather, but would have fallen, along with much more, had Trottier’s father not converted it into a restaurant and helped start the movement to preserve the historic neighbourhood.

Today, it’s hard to see what town planners could have been thinking: Old Montreal, roughly five blocks wide and 20 long, is one of the city’s liveliest and most charming quarters: small streets lined by restaurants, shops and cafés.

Most of it dates to the middle- and late-19th century, when Montreal was Canada’s economic powerhouse. Banks and head offices were domiciled here, along with lots of sturdily built warehouses. But by the 1960s Old Montreal’s glory days were behind it. The banks had moved and the warehouses were emptying. Turning an eyesore into an arterial road made some sense. Even after the highway was stopped, the following decades saw little done to arrest the deterioration.

What finally began to turn things around was an inn, the Auberge du Vieux-Port, opened in 1995. The Antonopoulos family, restauranteurs, converted an 1882 warehouse. Its original 27 rooms took full advantage of the bare stone walls, broad-beamed ceilings and hardwood floors to give guests the kind of atmospheric shelter big chains can’t provide.

The idea caught the public’s fancy. In 2001 the Antonopouloses opened the Place d’Armes and, a year later, the Nelligan. By then, others had gotten the bug. Today, Old Montreal has the continent’s finest, densest collection of historic buildings repurposed as boutique accommodation.

On rue Saint-Jacques the former Merchants’ Bank is now the Saint-James, where folk like Madonna, Mick Jagger and Elton John stay. On the same street is LHotel, once the Montreal City & District Savings Bank, owned by Guess Jeans co-founder Georges Marciano. Inside are five floors of art by Lichtenstein, Chagall, Warhol and others. These, explains LHotel staff member Nicholas Messas, are all Marciano’s. “He owns the largest private art collection in North America. This is only 10 per cent.” Still, says Messas, that’s $50 million worth.

A few blocks away is the Gault. It was built in 1871 as a cotton warehouse, although its extravagant Second Empire exterior suggests a loftier purpose. Today it six floors contain 30 rooms aimed at a high-end clientele.

Gaetan Trottier has gotten into the business, too. On top of his Pierre du Calvet House restaurant he’s added a 30-room inn with four-poster mahogany beds in the style of Louis XIII. They go well with the stone walls and dark oak panelling.

“Before 2000,” says Annie Champagne, front-office manager at the Gault, “Old Montreal had a few bars, a few restaurants, but no stores, no hotels. As a woman I’d have been scared to walk here alone at night. Now I want to live here.”

Those who can’t manage that can at least spend a few nights.

 

ACCESS

For more information on boutique-hotel accommodation in Old Montreal (Vieux Montréal) visit www.vieux.montreal.qc.ca.

For information on Montreal go to the Tourism Montreal website at www.tourisme-montreal.org.