Nearly 200 years ago, a district was created on the slopes of Mount Royal, whose unique architectural gems and stately facades still inspire awe. From 1850 to 1930, the Golden Square Mile was the residential neighbourhood of the Canadian upper class. It is estimated that 70% of Canada’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of the inhabitants of this area, the majority of whom were of Scottish descent. Since the early 20th century, the shady streets lined with opulent Victorian houses have gradually given way to Montreal’s business centre. Today, it corresponds to the northwestern portion of the downtown area, also known as the museum district.
Journey into the heart of the Montreal bourgeoisie
Most of the remaining houses are clustered north of Sherbrooke Street, the Golden Square Mile’s luxurious main thoroughfare. There’s even a castle, not of a king, but of a financial and commercial magnate. Ravenscrag (1025 Des Pins Avenue West) could indeed be classified as Montreal’s “castle,” thanks to its prominent position overlooking the city, its exceptional size (originally 72 rooms) and its rich history of lavish receptions and distinguished guests. This vast residence was built from 1861 to 1864 for the fashionably wealthy Sir Hugh Allan, who, at the time, had a near-monopoly on maritime transport between Europe and Canada.
Just a stone’s throw away, Lady Meredith House (1110 Des Pins Avenue West) is perhaps Montreal’s best example of the trend toward eclecticism, polychromy and the picturesque that swept across North America in the last two decades of the 19th century. Visitors will discover a mix of styles ranging from Romanesque to late 18th century, as well as strong hues and a marvellous jumble of towers, inlays, bay windows and chimneys. Today, it houses McGill University’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.
A little further south, Hosmer House (3630 Sir William Osler Drive) is without a doubt the most exuberant Beaux-Arts style house in Montreal. Each room was designed in a different style to serve as a showcase for the Hosmer family’s diverse collection of antiques. The family lived there until 1969, when the house became part of McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine.
Within the Golden Square Mile, it’s impossible not to feel the presence of the fabled McGill University (805 Sherbrooke Street West). Founded in 1821, thanks to a donation by fur trader James McGill, the main campus lies nestled in the greenery at the foot of Mount Royal. The entrance is at the northernmost end of McGill College Avenue, at the Roddick Gates, which contain a square tower with a four-faced clock.
Great spots to check out
The building that formerly housed McGill University’s Student Union and is now occupied by the McCord Museum of Canadian History (690 Sherbrooke Street West) was designed by architect Percy Nobbs in 1906 and expanded in 1991. It displays a hybrid architecture from the Arts and Crafts and English Domestic Renaissance styles. Dedicated to the history of Canada and Montreal, the museum houses an important ethnographic and photographic collection, including the remarkable Notman photographic archives, which provide a fascinating portrait of late 19th-century life in Canada. Another prominent cultural institution in the Golden Square Mile, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1380 Sherbrooke Street East) is a must-see, especially for Canadian art enthusiasts. If you want to take a breather between exhibitions, stop into the Beaux-Arts Restaurant, located right in the heart of the museum, for a weekend brunch or a more refined evening meal.
Another gem in this neighbourhood is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (1228 Sherbrooke Street West), the last of Montreal’s old hotels, which was inaugurated in 1912 by César Ritz himself. For many years, it was the favourite gathering place of Montreal’s upper crust. Some people even stayed there year-round, living a life of luxury among the drawing rooms, garden and ballroom. Tea is still served twice a day, and gourmets can enjoy the creations of Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud at the renowned Maison Boulud restaurant.
The more recent Le Mount Stephen (1440 Drummond Street), a luxury hotel opened in 2017, is partly located in the former George Stephen House. This magnificent Renaissance Revival style mansion was recognized as an “Immovable of Exceptional Heritage Value” by the City of Montreal in 2004.
Great spots to check out
Even with its abundance of old historical homes, there is no shortage of modern diversions to be enjoyed behind the heritage facades of the Golden Square Mile neighbourhood. The prestigious Ogilvy department store (1307 Sainte-Catherine Street West) has retained much of its Scottish charm and traditions. Until recently, a kilted bagpiper would wander through the store serenading customers during lunchtime. On the top floor, Tudor Hall hosts numerous concerts and galas. Recent enhancements and renovations will see the iconic Sherbrooke Street stores of Ogilvy and Holt Renfrew merge with the former Hôtel de la Montagne, which lies between them. This alliance promises to result in one of the most impressive retail stores in North America.
Perpendicular to Sainte-Catherine Street, Crescent Street has a split personality. North of De Maisonneuve Boulevard, antique dealers and chic boutiques occupy former townhouses, while to the south, visitors can find a concentration of nightclubs, restaurants and bars, most of which have terraces.
If you’re hankering for unique and daring culinary creations, restaurant XVI XVI (1616 Sherbrooke Street West) offers a sophisticated cuisine, inspired by the traditions of French gastronomy, using Quebec products. The place is also worth a visit just to be served by R1-B1, their sassy interactive robotic bartender! Les Enfants Terribles lets you choose between their brasserie, which offers a spectacular view from its location at the top of Place Ville Marie (1 Place Ville Marie, 44th floor), and their Cantine (1490 Sherbrooke Street West), whose comfort-food fare will make you feel right at home.