Downtown: Cemeteries made way for skyscrapers and businesses

And to think that 200 years ago, Montreal’s town centre consisted of nothing but fields, a holiday destination for the wealthy

The second largest financial hub in Canada, Montreal’s downtown core is the city’s economic engine. With an estimated 60 skyscrapers, its city centre can lay claim to having the most office space in Canada.

This 18 km2 district also has the highest concentration of jobs in the region. The sector accounts for 300,000, or 27%, of the jobs in the entire agglomeration. Not only that, but the downtown area also has the world’s largest underground network: 32 km of corridors used by 500,000 people every day. Not surprisingly, almost a quarter of all the city’s metro stations—15 out of 68—are located in its central core.

And to think that 200 years ago, Montreal’s town centre consisted of nothing but fields, a holiday destination for the wealthy and a retreat for the Jewish, Protestant and Catholic communities who established their cemeteries there.

With the construction of Sherbrooke, Dorchester (René-Lévesque) and Sainte-Catherine streets in the mid-19th century, this sector’s vocation underwent a radical change. Rich merchants from Old Montreal were immediately drawn to the area, churches soon sprung up, a tramway system was built, and the cemeteries were relocated. There ensued a period of thriving economic activity, spearheaded by the irresistible pull of the legendary Sainte-Catherine Street.

The prestigious Morgan’s store, founded in 1845 by Henry Morgan (1819-1893), was one of the first to succumb to the charm of Sainte-Catherine. In 1891, it moved from St. James Street (now Saint-Jacques) to a magnificent building that Morgan had built just across from Phillips Square. He was a visionary, and his store was one of the first in Canada to display goods in the window. Other stores were opened in Ontario, and Morgan’s remained in the family for several generations before it was sold to another major Canadian retailer, the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was founded in the 1600s exclusively as a fur trading business, but it abandoned this activity around 1870 to devote itself solely to retail. The oldest company in North America, it kept the Morgan’s name on the prestigious building until 1972, when it was rebranded as a Bay store.

Another company that quit St. James Street at the end of the 19th century was the renowned Henry Birks & Sons jewellery store, founded in 1879 by Henry Birks (1840-1928). In 1894, the company built and moved into a prestigious building on Sainte-Catherine Street at the corner of Union.

Thanks to the phenomenal success of the business that would become a Canadian jewellery empire, the building was renovated just 13 years after its construction. The retail area was increased to 18,000 square feet, the largest commercial space in the world on a single floor. In 1934, Birks was granted a royal warrant to supply British royalty, and the company also had the honour of being the official jewellery supplier for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

In 1991, Birks was acquired by Italian businessman Lorenzo Rossi di Montelera. Today Birks has about 60 stores in Canada, the United States and Europe. The historic building has been transformed into a high-end boutique hotel (Hotel Birks), which, naturally, still houses a Birks jewellery store.

Sainte-Catherine Street is still Montreal’s main commercial artery and, stretching more than 11 km and lined with over 1,200 stores, also the longest in Canada.

Some spots to check out downtown:

Leonard Cohen mural

930 m2

1420 Crescent Street

Place Ville Marie Observation Deck

185 m high with a 360° view

1 Place Ville Marie

Grévin Montréal

More than 125 celebrities

705 Sainte-Catherine Street