Article by Alexander Reford

A Client and His Commissions

HEN WE THINK ABOUT ARCHITECTURE, we most often think about the building and the architect who designed it. Less often do we consider the client or the person behind the commission.

George Stephen (1829-1921) left an architectural legacy that includes four buildings that are national historic sites and properties designated for their heritage value by the government of Quebec: his Montreal mansion, Estevan Lodge in Grand-Métis, Matamajaw in Causapscal, and Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital. All four buildings illustrate the complex legacy of heritage preservation in Canada.

A native of Scotland, George Stephen emigrated to Canada in 1850 and became one of the pillars of the Montreal business community. His investment in a railway in Minnesota in 1877 was the foundation of several colossal fortunes and provided the experience that prompted Sir John A. Macdonald to invite Stephen to form a syndicate to take on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1880.

On making his fortune in Canada, Stephen purchased, in 1873, a large block of land and fishing rights in Causapscal, a tiny village in eastern Quebec where the Causapscal and Matapedia rivers meet. Stephen’s first architectural commission was for his fishing camp in Causapscal. Baptized Les Fourches (the Forks), it was modest in proportions and utilitarian in configuration. With a single storey and a long rectangular footprint, the camp’s main rooms faced the river. A full-length veranda created the building’s largest room, a covered outdoor space where Stephen and his guests could watch the fishing and share a drink to celebrate the day’s success. Without opulence or the rich decor of his later homes, Les Fourches remains one of the best examples of fishing camp vernacular in Quebec. The identity of the architect is unknown, but the detailing suggests that one was used to design the building.

Stephen’s business travels to New York and London occasioned his access to the urban palaces of bankers and the rich architecture of the clubs they frequented. These buildings doubtless inspired his new home, designed by William Tutin Thomas and built on a large lot on Drummond Street in downtown Montreal. Thomas was then nearing the end of his long career as an architect (he died in 1892) that had brought him major commissions in Montreal, including the nearby St. George’s Anglican Church and a house for Duncan McIntyre, now the Shaughnessy House and part of the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

The George Stephen House is generally described as the best example of the Renaissance revival style in Canada. In his book A History of Canadian Architecture, Harold Kalman hints at the motivations behind Stephen’s choice of architect: “W.T. Thomas had become the most fashionable Montreal architect of the day, and it was fitting the he should be selected by Stephen, who was intent on expressing his elevated position in the financial community, and desirous of (but unsuccessful in) creating a niche for himself in Canadian society.” Construction for Stephen’s opulent two-storey palace began in 1882 and was completed in 1884. The cost has been estimated at $600,000 but little of Stephen’s correspondence survives to corroborate this spectacular figure. With elaborate exterior limestone masonry and carved interiors of exotic woods, it was one of Canada’s most sumptuous mansions and a showcase for Stephen’s wealth. Photographed by William Notman in 1884, in what is probably one of the country’s first commissioned surveys of an architectural interior, the house had suites of custom-made furniture and a seemingly endless array of objects, prints, and paintings. The effect is overwhelming, even suffocating to modern eyes, but illustrative of late Victorian taste in furnishings and decor and the acquisitive interests of the newly wealthy.

Stephen lived in the house for only four years. When made a member of the House of Lords in 1891, the first Canadian elevated to a peerage, he moved to London, to a John Nashdesigned house overlooking Pall Mall and St. James’s Park, just as grand as his Montreal mansion but with a slightly more prestigious address.

A few years after completing his Montreal home, Stephen embarked on another building project, a new fishing camp on the Métis River. Nearer to Montreal and free of the flies that bedevilled anglers on the Matapedia, the property in Grand-Métis also enjoyed sweeping views of the St. Lawrence. He baptized his new residence Estevan Lodge, a name that came from the cable code Stephen employed for frequent and often frantic confidential exchanges with CPR’s president, William Van Horne, during construction of the railway line. Much larger than his previous camp, the lodge had a more extensive porch on three sides and its main rooms had double-height ceilings, although its interior remained modest, with spare ornamentation.

The speed with which the building was constructed suggests that the design was done rapidly and that the timbers were cut elsewhere and shipped to the site for assembly. An 1886 article from a British Columbia newspaper indicates that when Stephen travelled to B.C. to inspect the recently completed CPR line, he was so impressed by the size and straightness of the province’s timbers that he decided to have some milled for his new country house in Quebec. There is nothing other than chronology to suggest that W.T. Thomas was the architect of Stephen’s fishing camp in Grand-Métis. It could also have been Thomas Sorby, an English architect who had just completed the Dalhousie Station building in Montreal for the CPR and was then completing what would become Mount Stephen House in Field, British Columbia. An 1894 accounts statement records that the architect was paid $180 for his work (the total cost of the house was $38,109.85), but does not reveal the architect’s identity.

Stephen’s final architectural commission, the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, was a joint project with his cousin Donald Alexander Smith (later Lord Strathcona). The architect was Henry Saxon Snell, a London architect who specialized in designing hospitals and rest homes. Stephen and Smith each gave $500,000 towards the construction of the hospital and an equivalent amount for its endowment. Snell started work on the project in 1887, and the hospital opened in 1893.

The Royal Victoria is one of Canada’s most complex architectural legacies. Adjacent to the campus of McGill University and backing onto Mount Royal, itself a designated landscape and protected area, the Royal Victoria Hospital was in use for more than a century before closing in April, 2015. The patients and facilities moved to the new McGill University Health Centre in Westmount. Finding new uses for the buildings, maintaining the medical and research vocation of the facilities, and removing the architectural accretions added over more than a century are significant challenges. McGill has identified the conversion of the Royal Victoria Hospital as the signature project for its 200th anniversary in 2021.

Although all four buildings are designated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and by the Government of Quebec, the similarities between their subsequent histories and present circumstances end there.

Stephen’s Montreal home on Drummond Street was one of a handful of opulent mansions in the Golden Square Mile that escaped the wrecker’s ball. In 1900, he sold the mansion to his brother-in-law and long-time business associate Robert Meighen. The Meighens made slight alterations, adding the ornate wrought-iron fence along the street with cartouches of the fleur-de-lys from Stephen’s arms. An 1898 issue of the Canadian Architect and Builder describes how Mrs. Meighen illuminated the house from the outside for a ball, perhaps the country’s first documented architectural lighting project.

The house and grounds were sold in 1926 to a syndicate led by mining tycoon Noah Timmins, who was so enamoured of it that he formed the Mount Stephen Club in order to preserve the mansion and provide it with a new vocation. The George Stephen house was one of the first in Montreal to be designated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1971; the Montreal homes of Louis-Joseph Papineau and Georges-Étienne Cartier were earlier designations. The club was diligent in maintaining the building but made several major alterations. The conservatory was removed in 1927 to make way for a separate entrance for women. A clumsy addition over the driveway was the other major visible alteration. Additions to the kitchens and banquet facilities were in the rear of the building and mostly invisible.

The current owners, the Tidan Group, a Montreal real estate and hotel company, purchased Mount Stephen Club in 2006, closing the club in 2011 after a labour dispute. In 2012, Tidan announced the construction of a 12-storey, 80-room boutique hotel stacked in the parking area behind the George Stephen house, with the original mansion to be used as the opulent main entrance, dining, and meeting rooms. Montreal architects Lemay received an Award of Merit from Canadian Architect magazine in 2012 for the design, but the proposed addition has been criticized as a less than successful integration of the old and the new.

The project came to public attention with a flurry of media articles in January, 2016, when cracks began to appear in the limestone facade. A 2002 Parks Canada report had previously identified instability in the foundations and problems with subsidence along Drummond Street (corrected by the Club during previous renovations). Apparently, the excavation beneath the building’s foundations for a 96-vehicle parking garage had destabilized the facade. Dinu Bumbaru, Policy Director of Heritage Montreal, called on both the City of Montreal and the Quebec government to stop work and intervene to come up with a plan and secure the facade. As this article goes to print, it appears that the solution is to dismantle and re-erect the entire exterior masonry wall stone by stone.

Explanations of how what was once described as Quebec’s best-maintained heritage building has come to the point of collapse have yet to emerge from the owners, architects, engineers, general contractors, or government. The controversy has highlighted questions about the nature and significance of heritage designations and whether the designating authorities have sufficient staff to implement protections. It also calls into question the professional resources available to developers when working with complex heritage buildings.

The fishing camps at Causapscal and Grand-Métis have had happier fates. Both are open to the public and in remarkable condition. The Causapscal property, now named Site historique Matamajaw, is owned by the municipality. It was designated by the Quebec government in 1984. Provincial grants have contributed to the restoration of the roof and exterior of the fishing camp and outbuildings. The site is open during the summer months as a museum and tourist attraction.

Stephen gave Estevan Lodge and the fishing pools on the Métis River to his niece Elsie Reford in 1918. It was sold by her son Bruce Reford to the government of Quebec in 1961, and the site was opened the following year to offer access to the gardens created by Elsie Reford. The government in turn sold the property to Les Amis des Jardins de Métis, a charitable organization that has stewarded the restoration of the gardens (now called Les Jardins de Métis/Reford Gardens) and buildings since 1995. The gardens are open to the public from June through October. The upper storeys of Estevan Lodge are a historic house museum, and the remainder of the building is a vibrant cultural and culinary space. Designated by the provincial government in 2013, the building has been meticulously restored under the supervision of heritage architect Bernard Serge Gagné of ABCP Architecture.

Perhaps Stephen’s greatest architectural legacy was that he hired William Van Horne, who, during his long career with the CPR, would reshape the skylines of several Canadian cities and landscapes with the ambitious hotels he commissioned and saw built. But Stephen was a builder of import on his own; and his buildings remind us of the ongoing challenges of heritage preservation as well as the proper transformation of historic structures.

Alexander Reford is the director of Les Jardins de Métis/ Reford Gardens.

Above, left-most 1st
Mount Stephen House, in Field, B.C.
Image: Les Amis des Jardins
de Métis Collection

Above, 2nd
Mount Stephen House, in Field, B.C.
Photograph: Les Amis des Jardins
de Métis Collection

Above, 3rd
Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal
Image: Les Amis des Jardins
de Métis Collection

Above, 4th
Banff Springs Hotel, built in the late
1880s by the CPR
Image: Les Amis des Jardins
de Métis Collection