Skip to main content

Facade of heritage jewel Mount Stephen Club "has to be taken down"

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

--January 26, 2016.

A crown jewel of Canadian heritage has suffered severe structural damage during a project to redevelop it as a 12-storey hotel.

Cracks have appeared in the stone facade of the Mount Stephen Club at 1400 Drummond St., a magnificent Victorian mansion built from 1880-1883 for Lord Mount Stephen, president of the Bank of Montreal and founding president of the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Temporary support beams are propping up the facade, which is visibly sagging toward the right.

The unstable facade is not the only problem bedevilling real-estate company Tidan’s plan to transform the property into an 80-room hotel by adding a 12-storey rear annex with underground parking.

Quebec’s Ministry of Culture and Communications is suing the owners, Jack Sofer of Westmount and Meir (Mike) Yuval of Hampstead and their numbered company, 9166-9093 Québec Inc., for making unauthorized alterations to the building, like demolishing three chimneys, removing wrought-iron railings and covering up parts of the stone exterior with cement siding.

The Golden Square Mile mansion, which operated as an elite private club from 1926 to 2011, “is the best example of a Renaissance Revival house in Canada,” according to the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

Classified as a provincial heritage building and National Historic Site of Canada, it had been in an impeccable state of conservation until construction began.

The sumptuous interior features 300-year-old stained glass windows from Italy, 15-foot ceilings and walls panelled in Ceylon satinwood, Cuban mahogany, oak and walnut. Light fixtures, door handles and radiator grilles are plated with 22-carat gold and fireplaces are carved onyx and marble.

Tidan, which owns downtown office buildings, apartment and condo towers and a hotel chain, bought the historic club in 2006. It shut it down in December 2011 after a bitter labour dispute.

In 2012, Tidan announced plans to transform the property into a high-end, 80-room boutique hotel, to be built on the club’s rear parking lot. The existing mansion is to serve as an entrance to the 12-storey hotel, a wedge-shaped building with three blank walls and a front facade dotted by a warren of small windows.

As a Montreal Gazette reporter surveyed the exterior damage last week with two architecture professors from McGill University, an engineer wearing a hard hat and a grim expression emerged from the underground parking garage, which was added as part of the recent renovations.

Franz Knoll, a civil engineer and vice-president of the firm NCK, said he had been hired by the owners to assess the structural problems.

He declined to give an interview but when asked by McGill professor Pieter Sijpkes how badly the building was damaged, he said the front facade must come down.

“It has to be demolished?” Sijpkes asked incredulously.

“Deconstructed,” Knoll responded, saying the structural damage was so serious, there was no way to fix it with the facade in place. “It has to be taken down and put back up again,” he said.

“I’m absolutely flabbergasted,” Sijpkes said in an interview.

When reached by the Montreal Gazette, co-owner Sofer initially denied the building has suffered any damage.

“No damage whatsoever,” he said. “No problem. Everything is under control, from every aspect,” he said.

However, Sofer confirmed the north half of the front facade must be dismantled and rebuilt because of damage caused by the hotel construction.

“We’re taking the wall down and rebuild(ing) it,” he said.

“We are not demolishing. We just taking few stones to correct the facade,” he said.

Charles Moryoussef, a lawyer for Tidan, said the company is cooperating with the Culture ministry and will rebuild the chimneys and restore other elements.

“Basically the proceedings (lawsuit) have been, call them suspended,” he said.

“There’s no denying that the owners have a penchant for this property, they love this property and they want this property to be restored completely to its original splendour, to (repair) whatever damage was caused by the (soil) settlement,” he said.

Tidan also owns the Hotel Travelodge Montreal Centre, Château Versailles, Le Meridien Versailles and Le Nouvel Hôtel & Spa, as well as the Hotel Mont Gabriel near St-Sauveur.

Sijpkes said dismantling the facade should be avoided if at all possible, since past examples of buildings that have been dismantled and rebuilt in Montreal never look exactly as they did before.

He said measures should have been taken to reinforce the existing structure of the Mount Stephen Club before excavating nearby.

When asked why such measures were not taken, owner Sofer refused to answer.

Sijpkes said Montreal is built on clay soil, which shrinks when it loses humidity, causing foundations to shift. When construction crews excavate a site, they pump out water, which affects the humidity in the soil, Sijpkes said.

“This is not rocket science,” he said. “The dangers are perfectly well known.”

“Old buildings are very fragile. If you’re moving your grandmother from the supermarket to the car on an icy sidewalk, you have to be careful, because the consequences are very serious,” he said.

Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Heritage Montreal, expressed alarm over the damage to the mansion and wondered whether it has affected the interior.

Construction projects on a building of this age and significance should be carried out by experts and handled with extreme care, Bumbaru said.

“This isn’t just a building — it’s a Stradivarius,” he said, referring to violins made by the Italian Stradivari family in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“It’s more than masonry. It’s almost like surgery,” Bumbaru said.

He questioned how such a thing could happen to a protected heritage building.

“How come we reached this point with a building which benefits from every level of protection?” Bumbaru asked.

Quebec’s Cultural Heritage Act requires owners of classified buildings to “take the necessary measures to preserve the heritage value of the property” and prohibits them from demolishing or altering the property without authorization from the minister.

Asked what the government is doing to protect the building, Anne-Sophie Lacroix, a communications officer for the Culture and Communications Department, declined to comment because of the lawsuit.

However, the structural damage is not mentioned in the lawsuit, filed Sept. 21, and Lacroix would not say what, if anything, the government is doing about it.

Anik de Repentigny, a communications officer with the Ville-Marie borough, said a borough inspector delivered a notice on Thursday ordering the owners to provide an engineering report, which they did. The borough also ordered a security perimeter to be cordoned off.

Before dismantling the stone facade, the owners must obtain a municipal permit, de Repentigny said.

“The Mount Stephen Club is in a class of its own,” said architectural historian Annmarie Adams, a professor at McGill’s School of Architecture.

“It is hugely significant for Montreal and for Canada, among the most important houses in Canada,” she added.