Residents of the Golden Square Mile: from notables to philanthropists

3 minutes

Anne Pelouas

In the 19th century, Montreal’s elite was comprised of several illustrious families who resided in downtown mansions, most notably in the Golden Square Mile. The neighbourhood begins at the foot of Mount Royal to the north and extends south to what is now René-Lévesque Boulevard, Côte des Neiges Road and Guy Street to the west, and Park Avenue and Bleury Street to the east. The mostly Scottish and English-speaking landed gentry of the Square Mile made considerable donations to institutions that still exist to this day.

From Molson to McGill

In 1786, English-born John Molson founded the brewery that bears his surname, and we owe the 1821 creation of Montreal General Hospital to him. The golden age of the Golden Square Mile would begin, however, in 1840, riding on a wave of prosperity that continued until the stock market crash of 1929.

Scotsman James McGill, a fur trade magnate, spent his wealth on institutions such as the university that is his namesake.

Major merchants invested in maritime and rail transport, real estate, as well as finance. They left the old city for higher ground and their mansions are often referred to architectural masterpieces.

Mansion builders and art collectors

Another Scotsman, Hugh Allan, was at the cutting edge of maritime trade and in 1862-1864 built one of the most luxurious residences of the time on the slopes of Mount Royal: Ravenscrag. Today, it houses the Allan Memorial Institute.

As for William Cornelius Van Horne, in 1890 he built a palace from the former home of businessman and politician John Hamilton at the corner of Sherbrooke and Stanley. His legacy includes a turn as president at Canadian Pacific and a prolific art collection.

Several mansions have stood the test of time, including the James Ross House on Peel, which was erected in 1892. Ross, another Scotsman, was also associated with growing the Canadian Pacific and art, notably the construction of a building for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.His château-stylemanor is now home to McGill University’s Chancellor Day Hall.

Hugh Allen
James Ross
David Ross McCord

David Ross McCord was the master of a Greek Revival residence called Temple Grove on Mount Royal. “In 1895,” highlights McCordMuseum Curator Guislaine Lemay, “he dedicated his life to collecting pieces from the British Empire,” some of which he would donate to McGill University in 1919.

But it’s thanks to William Christopher MacDonald that the collection would find a home in the Egyptian Revival style Dilcoosha building, which the “tobacco king” would purchase for McGill. Upon his death, his fortune went to Walter Stewart, who in turn became a philanthropist.

As for the owner of the Redpath sugar factory, Peter Redpath, his donations led to the 1882 creation of the natural history museum that bears his family name.

James Ross's house
Ravenscrag House, now the Allan Memorial Institute
Thomas George Shaugnessy
Shaughnessy's house

Shaughnessy Village

Among the downtowners of the late 19th century were George Stephen and Lord Strathcona, patrons of the Hudson’s Bay Company and famous investors without whom Royal Victoria Hospital would not have been inaugurated in 1893.

Thomas Shaughnessy, president of Canadian Pacific in 1899, also left an indelible mark on the south side of the Golden Square Mile. At the turn of the 20th century, a wealthy neighbourhood was named after him—Shaughnessy Village—due to his magnificent Dorchester Boulevard home, which is today part of the Canadian Centre for Architecture.  

After the Second World War, McGill University either actively acquired or was bequeathed some fifteen mansions according to a Héritage Montréal document.

Designed in 1901 by architects Edward and William Maxwell, Hosmer Housewas one such example, originally belonging to an entrepreneur by the name of Charles Hosmer. Another, a Beaux-Arts-style home located at 1507 Doctor Penfield Avenue, was built by a businessman named Joseph-AldericRaymond.

Louis-Joseph Forget
Louis-Joseph Forget's house
Charles-Edouard Gravel's house 1934

Wealthy and French

There were, of course, a few French-speaking members of Montreal’s haute bourgeoisie, such as Louis-Charles Foucher and Louis-Joseph Forget. The latter was president of the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1895, owner of a sumptuous Golden Square Mile manor, and an active member of the Art Association of Montreal, the precursor to today’s Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In 1931, architect Ernest Cormier built his Art Deco home on Pine Avenue.

The last great Golden Square Mile residence built by Montreal’s upper echelons was erected in 1934 on McTavish at the behest of businessman Charles Édouard Gravel. Today, the property is known as McGill University’s Thomson House.