A Historical Perspective / 1
The Park’s early years and what it could have been
By Michael Walsh
Updated September 19, 2023
Many are surprised to learn that parks are an artifact conceived and deliberated as carefully as public buildings, with both physical shape and social usage taken into account…
– Galen Cranz, The Politics of Park Design
Where does one begin to describe Westmount Park? It depends on two factors – whom you ask and when the question was posed. In 1919, a publication entitled Westmount the City Beautiful described the Park as follows:
“…The main park, which is situated in the centre of the lower level, is one of the beauty spots of the island of Montreal and every fine day in summer, hundreds of people may be seen there, admiring the gardens, sitting on the benches under the trees, or indulging in sports. In winter, it is the centre for skating and other winter sports…”
As for whom you ask, it depends on their residential status. Specifically, visitors to the city are, almost without exception, taken with the inner-city beauty of this twenty-six-acre green space. In summer, it offers sprawling lawns, a wading pool, winding walkways shaded by giant centuries-old trees, and the peaceful sounds of a stream flowing into a medium-sized lagoon occupied by wild mallard ducks.
The Park also contains tennis courts, a recreation center with year-round ice rinks, and an outdoor swimming pool. It also boasts a dog run (restricted to resident canines). In addition, there is the architectural beauty of the historical public library and adjacent conservatory, Victoria Hall, and the city’s unique floral clock.
What is there not to love about the Park? If you ask a resident, you would obtain a response not tinted by “rose-coloured glasses.” They would describe the Park as a neglected area – despite vast sums of money allocated to its improvements. Their list would be endless, beginning with the asphalt patching on the old brick walkways, trees and shrubs that have not been properly maintained, benches that need repair, the lagoon that leaks to such an extent it is beyond repair, large patches of lawn that are denuded of grass and a wading pool that is not universally accessible.
I, for one, having lived across Westmount Park for decades, can attest to its neglect. More importantly, the more the Park is neglected, the fewer residential visitors it attracts. The variety of gardens is gone, the Park’s cannons have been repurposed, the former bandstand was never replaced, and the full-time staff positions dedicated to its upkeep have been eliminated, as are the former “Park Ranger” security positions.
The Park no longer has a “head gardener” nor a city council member, whose prime responsibility, with staff and budgetary control, is dedicated to the city’s parks. Interestingly, the current counsellor with parks as part of her portfolio has the job title “Commissioner of Sports and Recreation and Parks and Greenhouses – Member of the Planning Advisory Committee – Trustee of the Westmount Public Library.” Seriously!
‘What is there not to love about the Park? If you ask a resident, you would obtain a response not tinted by “rose-coloured glasses.” They would describe the Park as a neglected area – despite vast sums of money allocated to its improvements.’
How did we get to this point? The area was one of the island of Montreal’s most beautiful parks – it was well maintained (year-round) by a team of highly experienced staff. It remained that way from its opening in 1896 until its disastrous “modernization” scheme in the 1960s, a scheme we are still paying for to this very day. In fact, the city is poised for another “park makeover” – thankfully, residential approval is, at best, “lukewarm.” Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let us follow the Park’s timeline – and try to understand Council’s rationale for creating a recreational park for the benefit of its residents.
The formative days of the Town of Westmount were blessed with councillors who possessed good business acumen and excellent foresight. This is reflected in their acquisition of property, not for development, but for the creation of spaces for the enjoyment of residents. More importantly, they created these green spaces for future generations. They also realized that as custodians (not owners), their responsibility was to maintain them, to the best extent possible, for the enjoyment of future generations.
If budgetary constraints prevented the purchase of property, Council resorted to renting tracts of land for the creation of green spaces. In fact, this method was used in the formation of Westmount Park. Before April 1898, the land was under lease from William Smith and Elizabeth Watson (for $160,000 bearing no interest until 1900) and the William Murray Estate (for $58,000 with an annual interest rate of four percent).
‘The formative days of the Town of Westmount were blessed with councillors who possessed good business acumen and excellent foresight.’
“… That a notarial agreement be entered into between the Town of Westmount and William Smith and Elizabeth Watson to rent for 10 years an area of 501,480 feet of land… area of Athol Avenue included – (closed in 1903) bounded on the south side by Western Avenue on the east by a line of Murray Avenue, on the west by Lot 233, and on the north by the property of the Estate Murray, said land to be used as a Public Park with an option to purchase the same at the price of 25 cents and 40 cents per foot…”
“…That a notarial agreement be entered into between the Town of Westmount and the Estate of William Murray to rent for 10 years an area of 157,571 feet of land, ($2,620.50 per annum) bounded on the north by Sherbrooke Street, on the east by the line of Murray Avenue, on the west by a lane and on the south by the property of William Smith and Elizabeth Watson, said land to be used as a public park…”
– Council Proceedings, September 12, 1895
In July 1896, amidst the raising of the Union Jack and a fireworks display, Mayor Fred W. Evans officially opened the area, naming it “Westmount Park” for the enjoyment of all present and future residents.
Two years later, Council became aware that a strong effort would be made by the City of Montreal to annex the Town of Westmount within the next twelve months. As such, the idea was conveyed that councillors “might as well look for all desirable improvements in the meantime.”
As a “poison pill” for the City of Montreal, Council passed a By-Law authorizing a loan of $350,000, a large portion of which was to purchase the land comprising Westmount Park. The loan would cover the purchase price of these properties and provide an additional $33,000 to acquire additional land to square the Park.
‘In July 1896, amidst the raising of the Union Jack and a fireworks display, Mayor Fred W. Evans officially opened the area, naming it “Westmount Park” for the enjoyment of all present and future residents.’
This idea was not well received by several residents who felt the funds should be used to improve the Town’s water supply and scavenging department. One resident stated:
“…this $350,000 loan is an impudent job of the worst kind. Of what use, say to the residents of Greene Avenue is the Westmount Park, situated near Victoria Avenue, and costing $250,000? Is it fair, or even honest, that they should be asked to pay for this extravagance, to say nothing about a conservatory costing $25,000?”
– The Gazette, April 15, 1898
The City of Montreal’s attempt at annexation, the first of many in years to come, failed largely because of the Town’s annexation committee, whose primary task was to retain the Town’s autonomy. As such, Council could focus their efforts on the Park’s improvements.
Specifically, two cannons were installed in the Park. They were fired on June 21, 1897, under the auspices of the Sons of England and the Second Regiment, Canadian Artillery, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. This was followed by a ceremony during which tablets were installed, near the cannons, commemorating this event.
In September 1899, the Westmount Public Hall opened on Park property. The building contained a gymnasium and meeting rooms for municipal societies and public lectures. That same year, the Westmount Public Library, also on Park property, was formally opened.
During the summer of 1899, the Town contracted Frederic Olmstead, an American landscape architect, to prepare a report on the “value of the work which has been done” on Westmount Park and “hints and suggestions on the betterment.” His report praised the Park’s appearance stating “…with the exception of one or two minor details, the available space could not have been used more effectively or to better advantage, and that, altogether, the Town possesses a public recreation ground of which it may be justly proud…”
The was, however, a problem that remained after the Park was laid out. Specifically, on the southwest corner, just above Western Avenue (today Boulevard de Maisonneuve) and behind the Methodist church there was a stagnant water-filled hollow. Much to the chagrin of Park police (and parents), this was an area that provided great amusement for children. To resolve this problem, Council created a 70 by 30 foot “swimming bath” in this area. Its design resembled a log cabin with small changing rooms along both sides. Entrance was by a ticket obtained at the Town Hall, and the area was supervised by a caretaker who also gave children swimming lessons.
In 1900, Councillor and Chairman of Roads (and former Mayor) James Henry Redfern supported the idea of extending the Park northwards, across Sherbrooke Street to Cote St. Antoine Road. This area, known as the “Murray estate block,“ was offered to the Town at no cost for one year with an option of extending the term (at a low rate) for an additional two years. Councillor Redfern, a true visionary, argued “… I am convinced that we would be only doing our duty to the people, as it would be almost a crime to let the opportunity slip, and we would be open to heavy blame in succeeding years…”
‘…with the exception of one or two minor details, the available space could not have been used more effectively or to better advantage, and that, altogether, the Town possesses a public recreation ground of which it may be justly proud…’
– Frederic Olmstead, famed American landscape architect
Redfern understood that the current size of the Park would not scale into future years as the Town’s population increased. He added, “… the present Park contains about 18 acres. About three are occupied by public buildings and their precincts and have to be kept for their necessary enlargements. The cricket and football fields, tennis courts and ponds occupy most of the other space and demands for further playground uses can scarcely now be met”.
One must agree, in 1900, that fifteen acres comprise a small park and would not suffice in total area into the next one hundred years. His major concern was that once houses were constructed in the Murray estate block, this expansion scheme would be impossible to implement. Having spent $250,000 in the present Park, some Councillors were reluctant to allocate an additional $100,000 towards its expansion. Redfern argued, “…These are no doubt large sums, but such expenditures must look relatively large during the youth of a town, and will seem proportionately small as the valuation continues to increase… the money is simply invested in a valuable asset… The effect of such a feature, a good liberal-sized Park, would be beneficial to property…”
It appears that Redfern’s arguments in favour of this scheme did not sway its opponents. Councillor and Chairman of Finance (and another former Mayor) Fred W. Evans publicly stated, “I am entirely opposed to the project and will cast my vote against it when it comes before the council…” In addition, he enlisted the support of James R. Walker (and former Mayor) in his opposition. They both took a narrow approach that argued by increasing the Park’s area, ratepayers would suffer an increase in their current six-mill rate. Adding, “I would gladly see Westmount Park’s area doubled… I am of the opinion that it is not expedient to spend more money in that direction for some time to come…” Furthermore, they argued that, as the Town’s population increased, there would be more demands on roads, scavenging, police services and lighting.
Mayor W.D. Lighthall, however, recognized that Redfern was looking into the future when lands required for municipal improvements would be impossible to procure. He commended Evans and Redfern for “real estate foresight,” the former through acquiring the current Park and the latter for planning for future expansion needs. He added, “… In Montreal, the evil results of original sins in this respect have cost the community some ten million of dollars without correcting half the trouble, while the one conspicuous exception, the acquirement of Mount Royal Park… I am convinced from observations that our present Park will not suffice for the needs of even twice the population at present.” In terms of being a burden on ratepayers, Lighthall argued that the costs would not be incurred until the end of four years. At that time, the Town’s growth in revenues would be more than sufficient to cover the extension costs.
‘In 1900, Councillor and Chairman of Roads (and former Mayor) James Henry Redfern supported the idea of extending the Park northwards, across Sherbrooke Street to Cote St. Antoine Road. ‘
In the end, the two former Mayors swayed Council to vote against acquiring the additional Park property at no cost with an option to purchase the land at 27 cents per foot.
“…That in the opinion of Council, the Town has already incurred sufficient obligations for the purchase of Park property, considering its population, area and present wealth and, while thanking the several citizens for their offer, they must decline the same as it involves either an injudicious present outlay or an obligation to purchase an expensive property…”
– Council Proceedings, September 17, 1900
Nevertheless, the Park was a favourite destination for residents and visitors alike. Trees were planted for ceremonial occasions and, surprisingly, attracted several suicides.
“…It was resolved to proclaim a public holiday on the occasion of the coronation of His Majesty King Edward VII on Thursday, June 26 instant and otherwise mark the event by the planting of a tree in Westmount Park…”
– Council Proceedings, June 23, 1902
“Shortly before 6 o’clock in the morning, two men passing in the Park noticed (a) man in a recumbent position on a rustic bench near the artificial lake. At first, they believed him to be under the influence of liquor, but upon going closer, they saw that his face was covered with blood from a bullet wound in the temple. Near the bench, they found a thirty-two calibre revolver with one of the chambers empty… The men notified the Westmount police, who had the body sent to the Morgue… ”
– The Gazette, May 30, 1905
“With a bullet wound in his head and a revolver beside him, the dead body of William Sydney Hartley…was found in Westmount Park…”
– The Gazette, April 1908
One little-known fact was the Park’s zoological garden, containing two bears and seven foxes, as an attraction to visitors. By 1909, the City’s Sanitary Inspector condemned the animal cages and recommended concrete floors be laid to prevent the dissemination of diseases. At this point, Council began questioning the merits of keeping wild animals for the public’s amusement.
“…it was resolved to authorize the purchase of seven foxes to be placed in the Park at a cost not to exceed fifty dollars – and that the City Surveyor be directed to make provision for the care of the animals in a proper habitation in the Park.”
– Council Proceedings, November 10, 1908
“…That a suitable acknowledgment be made of the offer of Mr. A. Pierce to donate to the Corporation any wild animals obtained by him to be added to those now installed in the Park…”
– Council Proceeding, December 19, 1908
In November 1911, the Parks Committee decided to extend the Park by purchasing land between Elgin Avenue (today Melville Avenue) and the Park’s western limits. The payment for this purchase would be through the disposal of Park property facing St. Catherine Street – comprising sixty percent of the land.
One year later, the City sold 120,000 feet of Park property facing St. Catherine Street to the School Commissioners of Westmount and an additional seven lots for $1 per superficial foot.
In 1913, a contract was awarded to Robertson Brothers for the construction of a greenhouse in Westmount Park. Two years later, MacGregor and Reid installed a comfort station in the Park. This was not without controversy, with many residents insisting that the building be placed underground.
“The council of twenty years ago went to some trouble to ensure that the Park which nature provided should be secured to the people of all time, but it remained for the twentieth-century council to make a public convenience of natural beauty spot…”
Feature image: Andrew Burlone
Images: postcards from Michael Walsh’s collection, unless indicated otherwise
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He is happily retired from nearly four decades in the field of higher education technology. A “professional student” by nature, his academic training, and publishing include statistical methodology, mycology and animal psychology. During this period, he was also an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Prior to moving to Montreal, he was contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Education to evaluate bilingual primary and secondary school programs. Today, he enjoys spending time with his (huge) Saint Bernard while discovering the city’s past and sharing stories of the majestic trees that grace the parks and streets. He can be contacted at michaelld2003 @hotmail.com or through his blog Westmount Overlooked