MONTREAL – It’s the frequently overlooked public square that rests in the shadow of Old Montreal’s captivating Notre-Dame Basilica and only a statue of the city’s founder offers a hint of its significance.
Place d’Armes is one of the most-visited sites in Montreal but sightseers usually stroll across its cobblestones to line up the perfect photo of the iconic Basilica’s towers. Few realize the 320-year-old plaza itself radiates the city’s long history.
Now, after a two-year, multimillion-dollar facelift, one of Montreal’s oldest public squares has reopened to the public.
Over the centuries, Place d’Armes has been a graveyard, military parade ground, transportation hub and gathering point for major events. Its name literally means “place of weapons” but parade ground would be a better translation.
Until 1834, the square also held a secret. The missing, decapitated head from a bust of Britain’s King George III sat submerged in its well, where American invaders had plunked it more than half a century earlier.
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Today, Place d’Armes is easily recognized by its statue of founder Paul de Chomedy de Maisonneuve but the space’s most-striking characteristic lies in the fact it’s wedged between architectural treasures spanning several centuries.
Standing in the centre of the plaza, visitors can take in a quick historical tour of Montreal in one 360-degree spin.
There’s the old seminary and Basilica that represent the initial Catholic influence, a classical bank building from a time when the area was the cradle of Canada’s financial power and foreign architectural designs that signal Montreal’s emergence as an international city.
“You also see the clash of these functions, which is basically part of the DNA of Montreal,” Dinu Bumbaru, director of Heritage Montreal, said of the recently renovated Place d’Armes.
“That statue of Maisonneuve . . . is like the pivot of the whole space – everything rotates around it. I think it’s one of those anchors in time.”
This unique historical panorama provided at Place d’Armes makes it a regular stop for students taught by McGill architecture Prof. Julia Gersovitz.
The buildings bordering the square include the old Sulpician seminary (built in the 1680s), the gothic-revival-styled Notre-Dame Basilica (1820s), the Bank of Montreal building (1840s), the red sandstone New York Life Insurance Building (1880s), the 96-metre, art-deco Aldred Building (1930s) and a more modern bank building (1960s).
Gersovitz says the plaza offers the quickest-possible history lesson about Montreal’s transfer of power but she notes the area is often overlooked.
“You’re often focused on the built environment, rather than the squares or the public spaces that help to define that built environment,” she said.
“There’s a lot that happened in the negative space that isn’t built up, that has an impact on us.”
Until recently, the square, which is visited by five million people annually, was hidden behind construction fences as it underwent a $15.5-million makeover.
During the excavation, workers found the remains of around 200 people in an old cemetery linked to the original church that sat on the square – before the Basilica was completed. The city says it moved the remains to a cemetery on Mont Royal.
Through its history, Place d’Armes has also held other secrets – one of them that decapitated head from a monument to King George III.
The bust was erected in the square in 1766 as a power symbol of the British Empire, according to the website of Montreal’s McCord Museum, where the item is now displayed. The museum says that in 1774 angry British citizens vandalized the monument after the Quebec Act came into effect, giving new privileges to French Canadians.
“They painted it black, hung a potato rosary around its neck and topped it with a sign reading, ‘Behold, the Pope of Canada, or the English idiot,’ ” the museum says.
The king’s woes continued a few months later when American soldiers stormed into Montreal. The monument was beheaded and the bust disappeared and didn’t turn up until 1834.
Bumbaru said the statue of a British king was a natural target around the time of the American Revolution.
“So they started making jokes about it and then cut his head off and dropped it in the well,” he said of the invaders.
Place d’Armes has also held its share of crowds who tried to get into the Basilica for major events. These include the funerals of hockey legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard and former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, as well as singer Celine Dion’s wedding.
“This is not a full summary of Montreal, because we have many other things elsewhere, but it’s a wonderful anchor,” said Bumbaru.
If you go. . .
Getting there: Place d’Armes is in Old Montreal, right in front of Notre-Dame Basilica. The best option is a trip on the subway (Metro) to Place d’Armes station. But there are many parking lots and parking spots available on nearby streets.
Accommodations: There are lots of hotels within a short walk of Place d’Armes.
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