This legendary downtown thoroughfare is a pillar of Montreal’s history, sharing both its moments of glory and its setbacks.
When it first took shape back in 1758, the street was called Sainte-Geneviève. Just a dirt road stretching through fields at the time, it still exerted a seductive pull. A few scattered residences soon bordered it on either side, followed later by a number of leather and fur merchants.
For nearly a century, Sainte-Catherine developed slowly, until 1891, when Henry Morgan decided to leave lower Montreal and set up shop in what would be Montreal’s first retaildepartment store. His famous Morgan’s store pioneered the display of goods in the window, and in the years that followed, other prestigious names like Ogilvy, Birks, Simpson’s, Dupuis Frères and Eaton’s, to name a few, would follow suit.
Sainte-Catherine Street became the de facto standard for shopping in Canada, and this created a ripple effect. Garment factories soon sprung up, and large office buildings were erected, including the Sun Life and Dominion Square structures.
There seemed to be no limit to Sainte-Catherine Street’s enormous power of attraction, and the cultural industry was no less immune to its spell. In 1906, the Ouimetoscope, thefirst Canadian theatre dedicated exclusively to showing movies, became the first of many cinema palaces to open there. Plays, vaudeville, burlesque and even striptease shows were performed in halls such as Casa Loma, Le Montmartre and the famous Gayety theatre.The street had reached maturity and was becoming an essential destination for locals and tourists alike.
During the final decade of the 20th century, Montreal, like the rest of the world, experienced an economic transition. Cabarets closed their doors and venerable institutions disappeared. But Sainte-Catherine Street was resilient, and others soon replaced them. Eloquent examples include Complexe Desjardins (1976), which, at 4 million sq. ft., is the largest building in the city, the Promenades Cathédrale, Place Montréal Trust, Cours Mont-Royal, the Quartier des spectacles and a revamped Place des Arts.
Today, Sainte-Catherine Street, which stretches more than 11 kilometres long—incidentally, one of the longest commercial arteries in Canada—and boasts some 1,200 destinations, has something for everyone and is beloved by both native-born and adopted Montrealers.