Westmount places: Elm Avenue
The history behind the familiar: the former residents that called Elm Avenue their home
By Michael Walsh
October 18, 2023
There has been rain this afternoon, and a wintry shudder goes among the pools on the cracked, uneven flagstones, and through the giant elm trees as they shed a gust of tears.
– Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood – 1870
Elm Avenue holds the distinction of being one of two city streets that honours a tree, the other being Cedar Avenue. Its name suggests a roadway lined with majestic elms, their interlaced branches capturing the sunlight to paint the street different shades of green.
Today, however, no elm trees grace the street. In fact, the street’s last elm was removed due to Dutch Elm disease in 1993. In addition, before the mid-1960s, the street extended southward, terminating at St. Catherine Street. In today’s configuration, it abruptly ends at Boulevard de Maisonneuve, giving way to Westmount Square’s large residential and commercial complex at the expense of several former residential and commercial buildings.
How did this occur? Did the city sacrifice a portion of this street in some misguided urban planning project? More importantly, was there a reason why the city needed to build “upwards” while facing demands posed by a growing population density? To answer these questions, one needs to step back in time and follow the street’s development.
To begin, the first record of the street occurred in 1876 – although its existence predates that period by several decades. Early residents in 1882 described the street as “impassable in the winter and in the summer lacked pedestrian sidewalks.”
In fact, up to 1945, several of the buildings were rooming houses, many of which were overcrowded and poorly maintained.
“Letter submitted from Mrs. W. M. Ford, 449 Elm Avenue, referring to… rooming houses in the neighbourhood and complaining of the objectionable manner in which these rooming houses were being operated and the unsanitary conditions in which the occupants are living…”
– Council Proceedings, July 1945
Despite the street’s poor condition, speculators sensed a bargain and purchased large tracts of land, hoping to subdivide them into housing lots. Unfortunately, they were far ahead of their time and within a few years, these lots were either seized by the Sherriff of Montreal for unpaid taxes or unloaded due to insolvency.
The list of real estate failures includes Arthur Bernard and Avila Houle (1893), Pierre Picotte and Herninie Picotte (1896), immovables 456, 458 and 460 sold due to insolvency, Adolphe Lebeu (1898) and Wilhelmine Boschen (1902).
Nevertheless, in September 1887, the Town surveyed the street to take it over as a general expense. One year later, the portion of Elm north of Sherbrooke Street was fully surveyed, however, it was not entered into the Town’s Street Record Book. It was decided that the street in its present condition was not in a state to be recorded. Council, however, was open to receiving a petition from the current proprietors to open the street in the usual way.
‘Elm Avenue holds the distinction of being one of two city streets that honours a tree, the other being Cedar Avenue.’
This did not deter the early builders. Specifically, James Douglas and W. Cruckshanks constructed several homes on the western portion of the street – due to lack of drainage, the buildings were flooded one year later. This prompted Council, in 1892, to have drains laid from Sherbrooke to High (today Holton) Streets. In addition, one year later, water and gas services were provided to the residents.
From that point, the street received several improvements: a macadamized surface (1894) and gullies to divert accumulated water (1896), a temporary sidewalk from Western Avenue (Boulevard de Maisonneuve) to St. Catherine Street (1899). By 1903, the street was a public thoroughfare with permanent sidewalks.
In 1939, a building permit was issued for a Community Hall and Sunday School on the southeast corner of Sherbrooke Street and Elm Avenue for Temple Emanu-El.
The ensuing years were unremarkable – until 1944. During that period, the majestic Elms that lined the street were ravaged by Dutch Elm disease. The trees were dying due to an inability to transport water through their vascular cells. First observed throughout Holland in 1919, the disease spread to eastern Canada, through the United States, from imported lumber. Initially thought to be the result of gas warfare during World War I, it was later discovered that certain species of bark beetles transmitted fungal spores to the trees. To eradicate the disease, the trees were felled in large numbers. In Quebec, 600,000 trees were destroyed – today, approximately 700,000 still exist throughout Canada.
Elm Street was not spared from the ravages of this disease. Despite extensive spraying efforts and an “Elm Avenue Petition to Save Trees” (1964), the City removed the only remaining Elm in 1993. Throughout the Island of Montreal, the Elm tree population dropped from 35,000 to today’s 1,500. (Interestingly, the longest-living Elm in Westmount was approximately 125 years old. It was located adjacent to 4402 Western Avenue.)
Once the street was denuded for its stately Elms, a planned residential destruction permanently changed its configuration. Specifically, in November 1964, using the Cities and Towns’ Act, Westmount assumed full ownership of the street and associated lanes from Western (Boulevard de Maisonneuve) Avenue to St. Catherine Street. This acquisition enabled the passage of By-Law 655 to “Regulate Residential, Commercial and Industrial Zones.” This new By-Law restricted buildings in specific zones to single and two-family dwellings. Not surprisingly, this move was strongly opposed by residents from Elm and Wood Avenues.
One year later, the city approved By-Law 676, closing a portion of Elm from Western Avenue to St. Catherine Street. Within months, another By-Law (679) allowed Council to sell that portion of Elm Avenue to Westmount Centre Inc. for $146,848.90. In addition, the City agreed to reimburse, up to a maximum of $70,000, for expenses incurred for removing public utilities from under that section of the street.
‘Interestingly, the longest-living Elm in Westmount was approximately 125 years old. It was located adjacent to 4402 Western Avenue.’
The sale also included seven nineteenth-century buildings, whose façades were to be incorporated into the proposed residential and commercial complex. Despite assurances this would occur, the developers demolished all the buildings. Unfortunately, no architectural records exist describing any of the former structures. (Civic numbers 246, 244, 238, 230, 226, 222 and 220)
Today, despite Mother Nature and a misguided redevelopment plan, the street still contributes to Westmount’s beautiful mosaic of thoroughfares.
One must admit, like all of Westmount’s streets, Elm’s story is full of “twists and turns.” Not surprisingly, its former residents also have intriguing stories. Let us take a walk along Elm Avenue and meet some of the former residents while rediscovering their forgotten stories.
206 Elm (Former civic number)
Westmount Transfer and Storage Ltd. (1926)
Later known as Kenwood’s Westmount Transfer & Storage Ltd. W. H. Kenwood, before entering the cartage business, owned a butcher shop at the corner of Elm Avenue and St. Catherine Street.
215 Elm (Former civic number)
Evan S. Cameron (1916)
14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment CEF, killed in action – June 1916
220 Elm – Demolished 1960s
Elm Hall (1898)
Associated with the Grace Baptist Church, corner of Oliver and Western Avenues (1893). In 1913, the church erected a new building at Sherbrooke Street and Roslyn Avenue. Roy Macdonald, the proprietor, protested the proposed Westmount Hall, which he claimed would interfere with his business.
Gowlland Optical Company Ltd. (1921)
Founded by Henry Orford Gowlland (a former resident of Burton Avenue), who patented the first multi-focal (progressive) optical lens. His patents were issued in Canada (1914) and Britain (1915). Published under the name of Henry Orford, Modern Optical Instruments and Their Construction (1896) and Lens-Work for Amateurs (1895), both of which are still in publication.
Robinson Oil Burners (1950)
Stanley B. Wilson (1930)
Canadian Field Secretary, Chess League of America
Independent Art Association (1940)
W. H. Lash (1905)
Secretary-Treasurer, Canada Tag & Label Company
“… died suddenly… He left Montreal to be married… and the excitement attending the ceremony is supposed to have overtaxed his heart… and the end came with terrible suddenness in the very midst of the wedding rejoicings…”
– The Gazette, January 19, 1905
246 Elm – Demolished 1960s
Kindergarten, Mrs. Lewandowski (1953)
Honourable Pierre-François Casgrain (1950)
“Pierre-François Casgrain is the Speaker who almost never was. Tradition dictates that votes for Speaker are unanimous, though in 1936, opposition parties voted against Casgrain after he had fired many staff members before the Speaker election had even been held. The lawyer, born in Montreal in 1886, left the chair in 1940 to join the Liberal cabinet around the time Kenneth Forbes painted his portrait. His wife was Thérèse Casgrain, who, as head of the Parti social démocratique du Quebec, was the first woman to lead a political party in Canada.”
– House of Commons, History, Art and Architecture
Louis-Philippe Hébert (1917)
Sculptor, C.M.G., R.C.A., Knight of the Legion of Honor and Knight of St. Grégoire le Grand
Image: Louis-Philippe Hébert, sculptor, circa 1898 (Public Domain)
“… the principal Québec sculptor of his generation. He was the first Canadian-born commemorative sculptor, and his forty monuments include Queen Victoria (Ottawa); Maisonneuve, Jeanne Mance, Monseigneur Bourget and Edward VII (Montréal); Monseigneur de Laval (Québec); and six sculptures in front of the Québec parliament, Québec City. He also sculpted busts, commemorative medals and numerous statues in wood, bronze and terracotta. For many years, he taught at Montréal’s Conseil des arts et manufactures.”
“A member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1880), Hébert was awarded the Medal of Confederation (1894), made a chevalier of France’s Legion of Honour (1901), and Companion of St Michael and St George (Great Britain 1903). In 1971, the St-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montréal honoured his memory with the Prix Philippe-Hébert, given to an artist of outstanding ability and stature in Québec arts.”
– The Canadian Encyclopedia
His works included the Maisonneuve statue in Place d’Armes, Archbishop Bourget outside St. James Cathedral, Jean Mance on the grounds of Hotel Dieu, the Cremazie statue in St. Louis Square, the Honourable John Young outside the Harbor Office and the King Edward monument in Phillip’s Square.
S. Voollven (1946)
Building converted into a two-family dwelling – February 1946
Placed for sale by the City for unpaid taxes – 1996
B. Tudor (1937)
Residence converted into a duplex – December 1937
Mayne McCombe (1905)
Manager, London Guarantee & Accident Company Co. Ltd.
E. Haynes (1895)
Proprietor, Institute for the Haynes Method of curing impediments of speech
Dame Idola Saint-Jean (1932)
President, Canadian Alliance for Women’s Vote in Quebec Province
“On April 25, 1940, thanks to the tireless efforts of women activists such as Idola Saint-Jean, the women of Québec finally obtained the right to vote in provincial elections. At the Quebec Liberal Party convention of 1938, with the support of some forty women delegates, Thérèse Casgrain, then vice-president of the Liberal Women’s Club of Canada, had succeeded in getting this issue included in the party’s platform. Once this party came to power in 1939, the government of Adélard Godbout granted women the right to vote and to run for office provincially, despite the open opposition of Cardinal Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Villeneuve. Thus, Thérèse Casgrain’s social network helped to open the doors of power to Québec women suffragists while Idola Saint-Jean’s talents as an organizer and orator galvanized the women’s movement as never before.”
“Thus, on August 8, 1944, after having demanded the right to do so for over forty years, Québec women voted in a provincial election for the first time. Idola Saint-Jean was there to exercise her franchise but died shortly afterward, just a few weeks short of her 65th birthday.”
“Every year since 1991, the Fédération des femmes du Québec has given the Prix Idola Saint-Jean to a woman or group of women who have worked to improve the status of women and to advance the cause of feminism in Québec, in accordance with this federation’s mission, objectives and orientations.”
– The Canadian Encyclopedia
376 Elm – Demolished 1959
Alexander Leslie (1933)
John McLean and Company, George W. Moss and Central Agencies Limited, insurance and real estate brokers
378 Elm – Demolished 1959
380 Elm – Demolished 1959
W. Hendry (1927)
Manager for Senator Peter McLaren
L. Parker (1938)
Building converted into a two-family dwelling – August 1939
Westmount Learning Centre (1986)
A. Macdonald (1894)
Union Marble Works
In 1930, an explosion destroyed the servants’ quarters above the garage.
“Mr. Cook was present and stated that the house was 46 years old; that the front of the house was sinking owing to the nature of the foundation, and he had received a tender for necessary repairs for $12,600 covering outside work only; further that owing to damage to the inside of the house caused by the sinking of the foundation, cracking of walls, etc., additional heavy expenditure would have to be made to put the property in shape. He thanked the Assessors for the reduction of $2,000 made this year but did not think it was enough under the circumstances.”
– Council Minutes, September 8, 1948
United Kingdom Friendship Fund (1947)
During World War II, this association sent food items to Scotland, where they were distributed throughout the British Isles.
Commander Alexander Gillespie, retired (1933)
In partnership with his brother, T.S. Gillespie, formed Gillespie and Company, commission merchants.
L. McNaughton (1938)
Building converted into a two-family dwelling – February 1938
Colonel Robert Starke, V.D. (1926)
Commander, Victoria Rifles of Canada. His business career includes President, Frothingham, Starke, Seybold Limited and President, Dominion Transfer Company.
Building purchased by the Royal Victoria Hospital – December 1940
George R. Lighthall (1894)
Lighthall & Lighthall Notaries
Associated Real Estate Appraisers Inc. (1951)
T. Meldrum (1925)
Residence converted into a duplex – July 1926
Edward Melbourne Roberts, builder (1928)
Alonzo C. Matthews, Manager, R. G. Dun & Co. (1899)
“Founded in 1841 by Lewis Tappan, the Mercantile Agency, later known as R.G. Dun & Company, was the first successful commercial reporting agency in America. The company pioneered the new industry of credit reporting, an important tool in the development of American commerce during the 19th century. Dun & Bradstreet resulted from the 1933 merger of R. G. Dun & Company and its chief competitor, J. M. Bradstreet & Company. It continued to be an innovator in business information through the 20th century and beyond.”
– Harvard Business School, Baker Library, Dun & Bradstreet Collections
Frank Moseley, E. Frank Moseley & Co. (1899)
« La tannerie Moseley est construite aux abords du canal de Lachine, dans la rue Saint-Ambroise, en 1859. Il s’agit de la première installation industrielle sur le territoire de l’actuel quartier Saint-Henri. Aussi connue comme la « Moseley Shoe Leather Company », la tannerie se spécialise, comme son nom l’indique, dans la production de cuir verni pour les chaussures et les harnais. Alors que les anciennes tanneries sont davantage gérées par les membres d’une famille et axées sur la production artisanale du cuir, la nouvelle tannerie industrielle utilise, entre autres, la machine à vapeur et profite de l’essor manufacturier lié au canal de Lachine. En 1871, la compagnie, pour laquelle travaillent trente employés, est la plus importante tannerie de la ville. Moseley présente même ses produits à l’extérieur du pays, notamment à la Centennial International Exhibition de Philadelphie en 1876 et à l’Exposition universelle de Paris en 1878. »
– Centre des mémoires montréalaises
Major Harold Murchieson Savage (1942)
Canadian Field Artillery, President, Rutherford & Company, lumber merchants
C. Laurendeau (1940)
Building converted into a two-family dwelling – January 1941
M. Lovelace, Henderson & Lovelace (1899)
Coal and commission merchants, as well as importers of fire bricks and English pipe clay
V. Reiport (1940)
Permit refused to convert the building into a two-family dwelling – July 1940
Building converted into a two-family dwelling – March 1944
Lt.-Col. Alan Kirschberg, son of Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Kirschberg of 485 Elm Avenue, had been awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service in the Air Transport Command, United States Army Air Corps – December 1945
Charles Albert Duclos K.C. (1899)
Mayor, City of Westmount 1905-1906. Rue Duclos, in the City of Montreal, is named in his honour.
Joann Issenman (1980)
Alderman, City of Westmount
David Robert Walsh (1937)
Fire Commissioner, City of Montreal. He was also affiliated with the London and Lancashire Fire Insurance Company and the Royal Exchange Assurance.
Feature image: Elm Avenue, by Andrew Burlone
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 evaluating 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