A Historical Perspective /2
Into the 20th century and a major upheaval for the park
By Michael Walsh
September 21, 2023
In the 1920s, Westmount Park had a large bandstand with an artistic railing and a pagoda roof. During the summer months, military bands staged evening concerts that attracted upwards of 6,000 spectators. Ice cream was sold during these events in support of the Westmount Social Services Association.
In 1921, another annex to Westmount Park was an area (the former Smith farm) between St. Catherine Street and Western Avenue, stretching east of Grosvenor Avenue to the west of Melville Avenue. This parcel of land was purchased by the city in 1906 and a portion was sold, ten years later, to James Maher and subsequently resold several times until it was obtained by the Academy Apartment Company. They constructed a residential hotel with fifty-two apartments, a large ballroom on the ground floor and a cafeteria offering full hotel services.
A fire destroyed the original Victoria Hall (named Victoria Jubilee Hall) in 1924 and, quite remarkably, it was rebuilt one year later.
That same year, an Armoury was constructed at the southern end of the park. Designed by Ross and Macdonald, it stretches to the western boundary of the park. A large portion of the level ground in front of the high school provided a parade ground for the Royal Montreal Regiment (14th Battalion C.E.F.).
Two churches abutted the park’s property. The Westmount Park Methodist Church, later the Westmount Park United Church (Lansdowne at Western avenues) and the Melville Presbyterian Church, amalgamated in 1925, forming the Westmount Park-Melville United Church. The Westmount Park United Church was a centre for community gatherings, offering musical concerts, talks and various activities for the very young to seniors.
A fire destroyed the original Victoria Hall (named Victoria Jubilee Hall) in 1924 and, quite remarkably, it was rebuilt one year later.
In the 1920s, the park offered band concerts, field hockey, cricket, softball (hardball was not allowed), English rugby, football and a wide variety of division games.
“…The shady lawns of Westmount Park, its rustic stone bridges over small rivulets, its horseshoe lake… Then there is the pond, a small Round Pond of Kensington, where the small boys sailboats and fathers are boys again. There is a cricket field in the park and, on Saturday afternoons, the long row of benches, shaded from the declining sun, is occupied by devotees of the games, who regard the playing as a serious matter indeed and punctiliously commend with a ‘Well played, Sir.’ ”
– Ian MacPherson, February 14, 1936
In 1926, a water hole in the park was transformed into a decorative lily pond. A concrete footpath was added with cobblestones, and the pool’s banks were filled with plants and flowers. At the head of the pool was an artificial waterfall with a fountain added in the pool’s centre. Named the “fountain pool,” it was used as a racecourse for miniature yachts, canoes and sailboats. The various ravines in the park were graded and sodded. Park staff added rocks and flowers bordered by large numbers of irises to add a colourful effect. At the same time, a floral clock, one of three in the world, was installed on the western end of the park.
In addition, the City acquired a Northern Electric “music reproducer.” Victrola records were played at Victoria Hall, and the sounds carried by wire transmitted to the park’s bandstand over eleven speakers. To accommodate visitors who enjoyed winter skating, a large shelter was constructed south of Western Avenue to provide warmth and an area to change their skates.
The 1930s saw the inauguration of the city’s Annual Westmount Playgrounds Sports Day. Sponsored by the Westmount Rotary Club, it provided a day of activities for children aged 5 to 16 who were Westmount residents. The programme would include a concert by the Royal Montreal Regiment, model yacht races, races for children and over 200 outdoor handicraft displays.
Interestingly, in 1934, the city entertained a proposal to use Lafontaine and Westmount parks as a waterfowl refuge. This was based on a similar project in Oakland, California, and Orlando, Florida, where thousands of birds overwinter starting in September. Six years later, the Verdun and District Sportsmen Association introduced pheasants in today’s Summit Woods. They were cared for by Westmount Park staff and described as “making a very attractive addition to the city’s parks.” The residents were less than enthusiastic about this idea when flocks of pheasants began nesting on their property.
‘The 1930s saw the inauguration of the city’s Annual Westmount Playgrounds Sports Day. Sponsored by the Westmount Rotary Club, it provided a day of activities for children aged 5 to 16 who were Westmount residents.’
The 1930s also saw numerous fly-fishing tournaments held by the Anglers Association of Quebec in the park’s lagoon. (Unlike today, the lagoon and duck ponds were over 10 feet in depth). The Model Airplane League of Montreal would use the playing fields as runways as their gliders soared over the park. In addition, the greenhouses held spectacular Easter and Christmas floral exhibitions, as well as large displays of tulips in front of Victoria Hall in the Spring. During the holiday season, giant Christmas trees would grace both Victoria and City Halls. During the winter, the Westmount Figure Skating Club and the Winter Club held competitions on a specially built outdoor rink that was also used by the Quebec Amateur Hockey Association.
During the war years, the park became a training ground for the City’s various militia and cadet units. In 1942, the Associated Screen News filmed Air Cadets in Training in the park featuring the No. 1 Westmount Squadron Air Cadet League of Canada. Interestingly, in 1946, the Montreal Shipping Co. Ltd., whose routes included Europe and the Mediterranean, named one of their ships the “Westmount Park”.
In addition, park events focussed on various fundraising activities, specifically those sponsored by the Westmount Rotary. These events raised funds for the Julius Richardson Convalescent Home of Chateauguay, the Montreal Children’s Hospital and the construction of the Unity Boys’ Club (today, Centre Greene) on Greene Avenue. By 1953, this became an annual event lasting a full week and attracting thousands of visitors.
In 1951, the City and the Royal Astronomical Society sponsored an annual “Star Night”. It featured an array of homemade telescopes that allowed visitors to view the constellations and planets. The event was a huge success, attracting over 700 participants.
At this point, dark clouds began to grow over the city’s beloved park. More specifically, there was a division of mindset between Council and the residents. The former deemed the park as, “out of date,” and the latter were satisfied with the status quo.
Further to the point, in 1956, the city called for tenders to construct a 355-foot-long artificial ice rink in Westmount Park. This would include a regulation hockey rink and a 100-foot ice surface for figure skating. The location, however, was the corner of Sherbrooke Street and Melville Avenue. Not surprisingly, this proposal elicited a large protest by residents. They argued that this location would deface the park, involve the destruction of stately old trees and the removal of the sailing pond and fountain.
Mayor A. S. Bruneau countered by stating, “A sailing pool is out of date, it’s Victorian,” adding, “It was good in the days of Shelley.” (Someone should have reminded His Worship that Percy Shelley was born decades before the incorporation of the Village of Notre-Dame-de-Grace). Thankfully, Council heeded the citizens’ concerns, and one year later, the rink’s location moved to the southeast corner of Lansdowne and Western avenues. (The outdoor swimming pool was added in 1962.) With that battle won, the war to retain the park’s current configuration was far from over. For some reason, perhaps in spite, Council was determined that the park was “due for a face lifting.”
“We are studying the question with a view of improving the recreation equipment and doing away with those things that have become ancient…”
– City Council, 1959
As such, the firm of McFadzean & Evenly (Canada) Ltd. ($960) was retained to develop plans for the improvement of Westmount Park. Charles Duranceau Limited ($103,364.00) was the contractor and Bau-Québec Enrg. ($28,662.05) contracted for plants and planting.
‘… the firm of McFadzean & Evenly (Canada) Ltd…was retained to develop plans for the improvement of Westmount Park… Not surprisingly, critics claimed the park will be sixty percent lakes and pools and thirty-five percent parking spaces.’
Plans involved the redesign of the duck ponds and waterways. Popular pastimes such as the outdoor checker’s boards and putting greens will be retained with a more modern appearance. At the same time, an extension to the public library was being built.
In 1964, Charles Duranceau Limited began the work by filling the park’s lily pond and reconstructing paths and grading near the public library. Other features included the creation of earth mounds, the construction of wooden bridges (replacing those using decorative stones), and major excavations for the pond complexes. One major focus was on watercourses. More specifically, this involved the restoration of a series of ponds and gullies that formed a natural watercourse from Melville Avenue and Sherbrooke Street, extending diagonally to Lansdowne and Western Avenues.
In addition, a reflecting pool and formal garden would be installed on Sherbrooke Street facing Mount Stephen Avenue with a floral clock as a centrepiece. Other features would include the redevelopment of the children’s play area, rebuilding the sailing pond with a fountain and a large rose garden in the mall area of Victoria Hall and the public library. Not surprisingly, critics claimed the park will be sixty percent lakes and pools and thirty-five percent parking spaces.
For some reason, perhaps due to budgetary constraints, not all the features in the design were included in the completed project. As such, residents were left with an unfinished product that opened to little (if any) fanfare. It was almost as if the park had lost its soul or meaning in existence.
Not surprisingly, many sports teams and leagues looked elsewhere to hold their tournaments. Without a bandstand, evening concerts in the park that attracted thousands of spectators ceased. The changes, coupled with a decline in sponsored community events, resulted in fewer visitors using the park as a recreational area.
‘ For some reason, perhaps due to budgetary constraints, not all the features in the design were included in the completed project. As such, residents were left with an unfinished product that opened to little (if any) fanfare.’
The park had become “picturesque” rather than a piece of much-needed countryside located within a metropolitan city. Not only did the residents lose interest in the park, but Council also followed suit. In 1968, the city’s “Park Rangers,” who provided park security, were discontinued, as were the attendants responsible for the comfort stations, putting greens and outdoor chess areas. In addition, with the retirement of full-time park gardening staff, these positions were contracted on a seasonal basis to external landscape companies.
By 2000, the budget for annuals in the park was a mere $7000. (In comparison, one piece of playground equipment costs more than $10,000.) The area used for outdoor chess and shuffleboard was repurposed as an outdoor “Youth Centre,” the hours being from 6 pm to 10:45 pm on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays. The city would engage a person selected by the youth to run the kiosk and the salary would be $40 per week. Its intended usage was short-lived due to many noise complaints.
By 1975, Council focussed its attention on a section of Boulevard de Maisonneuve that horizontally intersected the park. In July of that year, it was closed between Melville Avenue and Academy Road, with the roadbed being removed and the surrounding areas landscaped – creating a footpath between the two streets. This, however, was a temporary improvement to the park. In 1979, Council voted 4-1 in favour of a bicycle path between Greene and Prince Albert avenues with a spur through Westmount Park.
Interestingly, the one dissenting vote was cast by Mayor Brian Gallery – who thought the bicycle path would serve non-residents of the city more than it would Westmounters and questioned the city’s suitability as a bicycle path location. A large number of residents agreed with the Mayor and urged Council to relocate the bicycle path along St. Catherine or Sherbrooke streets. The final decision, to maintain the path year-round through the park, was included in the City of Montreal transportation plan – a document in which the City of Westmount was not consulted.
The 1980s ushered summer concerts (initially sponsored by the Y.M.C.A.) near the park’s lagoon, and the baseball fields adjacent to Westmount Park School were in constant use over the weekends and civic holidays. That same year, issues were starting to appear from the park’s previous “rehabilitation,” specifically, the park’s watercourses needed urgent attention. The City contracted Membrex Limited to reconstruct the waterways (for $190,891.10). Unfortunately, this did not resolve the issue of water leaking through the watercourse’s membrane – resulting in a civil suit between the city and the contractor.
This was just the “tip of the iceberg” – the ensuing years saw the city pouring vast sums of money into issues that would have never occurred if the park’s rehabilitation scheme had not been adopted. For example, the park’s water lines were replaced ($6,600) in 1985, $130,000 was allocated to a feasibility study regarding the reconstruction of the park’s paths in 1986 and $275,000 to Mr. Ron Williams, Landscape Architect, to cover “certain reconstruction in Westmount Park.”
‘… the ensuing years saw the city pouring vast sums of money into issues that would have never occurred if the park’s rehabilitation scheme had not been adopted.’
By the 1990s, the park was used for a myriad of meetings and events: religious services (including AA delegations from Westmount Baptist Church); Arts Westmount Festivals; a wedding destination for photographs; the Westmount Toastmasters Club; Shakespeare in Park (subsidized by the city); Family Day; the Westmount Winter Carnival; annual Scout-A-Thons; St. Jean Baptiste celebrations (inaugurated in June 1999 and described “as a genteel garden party”); Canada Day celebrations; Poetry in the Park; and the Montreal Millennium Melon Festival that raised funds to rehabilitate the vacant train station.
Surprisingly, in June 1986, fifty percent of the park was temporarily fenced off for a private fundraising celebration for The Study School Foundation. The event, with 800 guests, included Pierre Trudeau and Mayor Brian Gallery, Charles Bronfman, and David Johnson. The use of the park for private events drew a great deal of criticism and, to date, has never been repeated. One novel use of the park occurred in April 1989. One scene for the movie Jacknife (starring Robert De Niro and Kathy Baker) was filmed in the field adjacent to Westmount Park School.
The park’s duck pond was closed in 1993. Before that date, ducks were donated to the city by Brome Lake Ducks Ltd. Following a senseless massacre of the park’s ducks in 1986 and in 1993, the city banned their use in the park’s lagoon.
One year later, the two cannons in the park were removed for repairs. Council reported that the repairs were to take about a month, the cannons then returned to the park. This, unfortunately, did not occur.
In 2004, the Westmount Rugby Club was denied use of the park’s football field because only a few members were Westmount residents.
Three years later, Council decided to reconfigure the park’s playing fields. This would involve the elimination of the three baseball diamonds in the lower field and the creation of two soccer fields. Their options included resodding the entire area or the partial use of synthetic turf. The latter option drew over 1,000 signatures on a petition to preserve the grass fields. By the end of 2007, Council dropped the artificial turf option and (being in a petulant mood) fenced with a lock and key (for $23,726.33) one of the soccer fields to “prevent overuse.”
‘One can argue that the city did spend a fair portion of its budget on park improvements – however, were they allocated properly? The bigger question, echoed by many residents is, “Why is the park still looking so tired and shabby?’
On a positive note, 2013 saw the inauguration of the Westmount Recreation Centre. One of the finest facilities on the Island of Montreal that, architecturally, conforms seamlessly with the city’s streetscape and is constructed to provide residents with recreational enjoyment well into the future.
The year 2015 saw the dog run relocation controversy, creating the “Southwest Dog Run in Westmount Park.” (One could compile an entire book chapter on the controversy surrounding this scheme.)
Two years later, the city allocated $177,127.56 to replace the park’s playground equipment – and in 2018, $94,664.67 was spent on adult exercise equipment in the former outdoor chess and shuffleboard area.
One can argue that the city did spend a fair portion of its budget on park improvements – however, were they allocated properly? The bigger question, echoed by many residents is, “Why is the park still looking so tired and shabby?”
In true municipal form, the city allocated more funds to answer these questions. In 2019, tenders were publicly opened for professional services and a feasibility study for the restoration of Westmount Park. The contract was awarded to Stantec Experts-Conseils Ltée for a maximum amount of $206,470.96.
One year later, Stantec released their report in a public presentation and received (at best) a “lukewarm” reception. In an attempt to elicit more citizen involvement, the city conducted a paper-based survey and launched an online discussion platform (Engage Westmount). Unfortunately, there were obstacles in both these methods. The survey required a “unique code” before it could be submitted – not surprisingly, only 100 responses were received. The online forum requires one to create a user ID and password. (Don’t we have enough passwords in our lives?)
‘The big question still remains: What type of park will future residents inherit? Will we be remembered as good custodians or a generation of neglect?’
As of 2023, there seems to be little interest in Stantec’s proposal – and even less visible improvements in the park’s infrastructure. From my perspective, there were two causalities in this latest scheme – the park itself and the Councillor who championed this idea but did not seek re-election.
In the end, we are paying for our sins when the park was regarded as “ancient.” In fact, the current city administration admits that it might not be legally allowed to operate the park’s watercourses in their current condition. In addition, the paths contain cracks (temporarily repaired with asphalt) that make walking dangerous. Furthermore, the issue of accessibility needs to be addressed in all aspects of the park.
The big question still remains: What type of park will future residents inherit? Will we be remembered as good custodians or a generation of neglect?
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