Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Place Viger Hotel: 80 years of uselessness

    Montreal's long-abandoned Viger Square Hotel is proof that you can be beautiful and yet still ignored and despised.
   The magnificent old CP station hotel, designed by Bruce Price in 1898 to look similar to his Chateau Frontenac Quebec City boardwalk jewel, has been utterly useless since 1935 when the hotel closed.
    The hotel was built by CP near its railway station and harbour access, so a passenger could could take a CP ship to Montreal, disembark near the hotel, stay a night or two, and then hop on a CP train out west, although the hotel must've been some sorta noisy judging from all those trains out the window.
   The station was eventually removed and the hotel went belly up as the city developed to the west.
   The feds took it over and used the property for makeshift housing for war veterans. In later years the City of Montreal used parts of it for administrative offices, something they no longer need, with the creation of a new building just east of city hall.
   The city sold the property at a bargain $9 million in 2005 to a consortium which included Richard Homburg, a Dutch real estate mogul based in Halifax.
  The sale was notable because our mayor Tremblay tried to keep the evaluation under wraps, but it wasn't necessary because dumping the property to a serious developer was a very good thing.
   The Homburg development initiative was headed by Phil O'Brien who hired his old friend Cameron Charlebois to help figure it out.
  They gutted the interior in a plan to pour $300-$400 million into building a 250- room hotel, with 1,800 underground parking spaces as well as offices and 200 condos or apartments on the two hectare site, which includes a lot of vacant land out back.
  The building was to stand 60 metres tall, above the 44 allowed in the zoning.
  Then Ville Marie Borough Mayor Benoit Labonte embraced the project enthusiastically, which is never a good thing because Mayor Tremblay considered Labonte his archenemy and in politics nobody likes to see anything work out well for an opponent.
   A neighbourhood impact report was also critical of the plans but it's not really clear whether those critique and suggested tweaks were the dealbreaker.
  Homburg stocks took a hit around 2009, going from $48 to $11 and suddenly they couldn't pull off the big project, so they sold it off in Feb. 2012 after putting about $35 million into renos and repairs.
   The newest owners, Pur and Jesta, plan to put $450 million into something similar as the old plan, with 700 apartments. They bought the site for $26.5 million, and kept Phil O'Brien in charge.
   The new project includes retail and office space as well as those apartments and somebody will undoubtedly gleefully order the developers to include 15 percent welfare housing in the new development as a shiny feather in their do-gooder cap.
   The property is on the northeastern edge of Old Montreal but doesn't really feel to be in the heart of the most desirable section of the highly-coveted old city. It's believed that the area will become more desirable when the French superhospital comes on line in 2016 but currently the nearby neighbourhood is a little isolated, the view of the highway isn't spectacular and the area is overrun by derelicts from the various homeless shelters.
     Nonetheless the project should be a success if it's ever built and I'm not entirely convinced this project will happen. Getting four hundred million bucks of financing together isn't the easiest thing in the world, as this property proves.


UrbanLegend said...

Maybe the city should turn the building into its first swanky, legalized brothel.

Think of the tax money it would rake in.

Colin Paterson said...

Spent a few months working at Place Viger for the C.P.R. I would go there in the mornings and work in their tracing department leafing through boxes of waybills. Mouse droppings in the boxes were not uncommon. My job also entailed working as a security guard by the freight elevators in a garment manufacturing building on St. Lawrence Blvd. in the afternoons. Got fired for punching out the other annoying security guy who worked for CN.
Place Viger was dated even in the 60s. I swear I saw Tom Mix's (the silent movie cowboy actor) name carved on a bathroom door.
I'm fairly sure Place Viger was where the stores were for food that was loaded on to the passenger trains before they went to Central Station. I spent most of 1967 working on the trains.
I remember they would load up these old wagons with pies, meat, juices, etc. and yoy would have to pull the big cart by hand to the dining car which required a few strong backs. Someting that at one time was probably done by horses.
There was a whole sub culture about working on the trains. Most employees came from the tougher parts of Montreal and some spent their whole adult lives working for CN or CPR.
I plan on writing a short story about working on the trains.
"Last call for dinner!"

Rich said...

Interesting anecdotes, Colin. I`d read whatever you wrote.

Horton said...

Your short story about working on the trains sounds interesting, Colin. We hope to read it soon.

Viger wasn't where the commissary was for food to be placed on trains before they went to Central Station because it was another railroad.

Viger was CPR. Central was CNR.

When you worked on the trains, the pool train agreement was over. (CNR and CPR pooled their equipment and trains in the Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto corridors using each other's stations and tickets).

In 1967, CPR trains were provisioned at the Glen coach yards in Westmount where the English "super hospital" is being built. I'm not sure about CN trains. I've seen them provisioned at the Point St. Charles yards and also at Central Station itself in later years.

Colin Paterson said...

Horton...my mistake you are absolutely right. I honestly can't remember where the CN train yards were. I know I was there. I got my waiter training there by a man named Mike Hogan who reminded me a lot of Ernest Borgnine. I think we used to go to the yards in a taxi pool paid for by CN. Point St. Charles was probably where it was.
Funny I once had a bar conversation with a jazz singer and he told me how he worked on the trains when he was a kid for CN and went through Banff and I pointed out that CP went through Banff and CN through Jasper. I kind of ruined his story.
It was just the odd time that we had to load provisions onto the dining car. Most of the time the stock was already on the train when we came to work. Most often the train would leave Central station not much more than an hour or 2 after we arrived at work.

emdx said...

The CNR coach yard was in Pointe-St-Charles, slightly east of where the current VIA Rail maintenance center is currently located.

But the dining car commissary was under the tracks in Central Station, which explains the great number of cats that lived there, feeding on the rats that lurked in the commissary garbage.

* * *

Regarding redevelopping downtown.

It’s all fine and dandy to have people living there, but one thing that is needed is some large-scale supermarkets. I mean something at least city block size (like the Loblaw’s by Park Avenue station).

Colin Paterson said...

My short story about working on the CN trains out of Montreal in 1967 is up on my blog.

Horton said...

Thanks emdx. I thought it might have been at Central Station. I remember seeing all those old four-wheeled baggage carts full of provisions being loaded at the small service door of the diners and some lounge cars.

The CPR had those wagons too. Some were pulled by small gasoline tractors. Others used at Windsor Station were self-propelled electric wagons. The driver stood on a small paltorm at one end and drove with a control rod.

Also thanks Colin. Heading to your site now.