Mackay L. Smith takes a nostalgic look at Montreal’s beloved main artery
New York has its Broadway, Paris its Champs-Élysées, and Toronto its Yonge Street. Every major city can boast of at least one venerated thoroughfare, the place where a considerable portion of its history was played out and many of its most beloved buildings still stand.
Montreal has Sherbrooke Street—the ever-enduring ‘Grand Old Dame’ that stretches 32 kilometres from Westminster Avenue in Montreal West to the very eastern tip of the island in Pointe-aux-Trembles.
Originally named for Lower Canada’s commander-in-chief Sir John Coape Sherbrooke back in 1817, the street has grown into a main artery that traverses all of Montreal’s socio-economic boundaries, connecting tree-shaded residential communities with bustling commercial zones and opulent ‘Square Mile’ mansions with east-end oil refineries.
Now the history of that storied thoroughfare has been chronicled in Mackay L. Smith’s aptly titled ‘Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street: The Spine of the City’, a handsome new book that succeeds admirably in conveying the look and feel of a bygone era with old maps and photos—many of which come from the McCord Museum’s excellent William Notman collection.
Smith, a Westmount author whose previous work includes a well-researched history of Montreal’s Jewish community, deftly combines the keen sense of a historian with the sharp eye of a photographer, juxtaposing vintage photos with his own contemporary images of the same locales. The result is a lavish, complex portrait of the multi-faceted street in all of its seasons.
Avoiding the mistake of examining the long street as a whole, Smith has instead broken it down into distinct sections, each with its own chapter, where he can discuss every neighbourhood’s unique architectural and social histories in their proper context.
Starting with a photo-packed chapter devoted to Montreal West and Notre Dame de Grace, which features accounts of local parks and other points of interest such as the Loyola campus of Concordia University and the Empress Theatre (formerly Cinema V), Smith leads readers on a fascinating tour of the street that unwinds like a leisurely eastward drive on a sunny afternoon.
Next comes a look at Westmount and the many local landmarks that reflect the community’s quiet dignity. From Victoria Hall and the Public Library to City Hall and the Mother House of the Congregation of Notre Dame—which we now know as Dawson College—Smith not only covers areas of well-trodden ground but also provides interesting new insight into some of the lesser-known residential buildings along the way.
The journey continues downtown with chapters on the stretch between Atwater and Guy, then from Guy to Mountain, Mountain to University and subsequently all the way out past the Honoré-Beaugrand metro station and beyond George V Avenue in Montreal East—a vast area of the island that until now has been woefully under-researched by local historians. As Smith himself has pointed out, the midway point of Sherbrooke Street is not St. Laurent Boulevard, as most would automatically assume; instead it is actually closer to Dickson Street, east of Olympic Stadium.
The history of Sherbrooke Street is, for the most part, the history of Montreal itself, and Smith acknowledges this throughout the book by placing his anecdotes about the people and buildings firmly within the context of the overall story of the city. He even provides a few thumbnail biographies from the vast gallery of major and minor characters whose deeds may have faded with time but whose names live on in the streets that intersect Sherbrooke—names like Montreal garrison commander Raphael Lambert Closse and biscuit manufacturer Charles Théodore Viau.
Published simultaneously in French as ‘La rue Sherbrooke de Montréal : la colonne vertébraie de la ville’, Smith’s nostalgic homage to this remarkable street demonstrates a scope and ambition well beyond the average book on local history. Augmented by sections on geology, elevations, the underground water network, transportation and even a list of artists who have depicted the street in their work, ‘Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street: The Spine of the City’ is likely to be the most complete book we will ever see on the subject. ‘Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street: The Spine of the City’ by Mackay L. Smith is published by InfiniteBooks and is available for $45.95 at most bookstores. The French version, ‘La rue Sherbrooke de Montréal : la colonne vertébraie de la ville’, is translated by Alain Arnaud.