In a natural port at the confluence of the Saint-Pierre and Saint-Laurent rivers, this site of the Old Port of Montreal, already identified by Samuel de Champlain in 1611, is located on a peninsula which will bear the name of Pointe-à-Callière.
The location of 357 de la Commune on the west side of Pointe-à-Callière experienced, since the beginning of the French regime, various phases of occupation closely linked to the major stages of Montreal's economic development. The first windmill in Ville-Marie was built there in 1648, and then this same sector was used as a base for the fur trade and later on became a shipyard.
Around 1747, the Gray Nuns, administrators of the Montreal General Hospital, had wharves built on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, next to the site of the current building.
Archaeological excavations carried out at the site in 1998 revealed the remains of a large canoe shed, built in 1772 to house the imposing masters' canoes used for the great expeditions to the northwestern fur reservoirs (Ethnoscop 1999).
The opening in 1825 of the Lachine Canal, with its entrance located directly west of the present location of 357 de la Commune, provided the Port of Montreal a direct access to the Great Lakes.
During the second half of the 19th century, Montreal was the industrial, financial and commercial center of Canada. The digging of a navigation channel from Quebec allowed larger ocean vessels to reach the metropolis.
In 1868, the Canadian government acquired the land stretching from McGill Street to Saint-Pierre Street, on which the Examining Warehouse and Customs Building will be erected. The government then sold the section of the land at the corner of de la Commune and Saint-Pierre streets to the Harbour Commissioners of Montreal.
The Harbour Commissioners decided to erect a building to house the administrative offices of the Port of Montreal on the site they had acquired. The design of the building was entrusted to the architectural firms Hopkins & Wily and Alexander Cowper Hutchison, who designed an Italian-style building based on a flared plan following the curvature of the rue de la Commune.
The construction of the Harbour Commissioners' building began in 1874 and ended in 1876.
Since 1876, the Harbour Commissioners' building has been an important landmark in the historic district of Old Montreal. From 1880 until the end of the 1960s, the building was occupied by the administrative offices of the Port of Montreal and other federal departments.
From 1960 to 1972 the building became largely unoccupied. The lack of maintenance and the impact of time on the building's structure and the envelope slowly deteriorated it.
The building was acquired in 1972 by a Chinese furniture import company, which used the building primarily as a warehouse. Remaining without a major maintenance program, the deterioration of the building continued until its purchase by Daniel Langlois in 1997 who, like many Montrealers, found it disconcerting that a building such as this one was abandoned and left in a state of advanced deterioration which augured its inevitable disappearance if no safeguarding intervention was put in place.
Following the acquisition, Langlois quickly embarked on a project to fully restore the building, a project that was absolutely necessary not only to stop the visible deterioration of the building but also to prevent its possible collapse.
The architectural firm Fournier, Gersovitz, Moss & Associés, now EVOQ, recognized for their expertise and the quality of their historic restoration work carried out on several important buildings in Canada, was retained to accomplish this challenging restoration mission.
The first stages of the restoration work began in the fall of 1997.
Unfortunately, at the beginning of the restoration project the work carried out by a contractor caused a major fire on December 18, 1997. The fire completely destroyed significant portions of the building including the tower with its dome, the 4th and 5th floors and damaged the interior of the 3rd and 2nd floors leaving only an envelope of blackened stone.
Considering the extent of the damage caused by the fire, Langlois then faced a dilemma: should he replace what remains of the original Harbour Commissioners' building with a brand new construction, easier and faster to build, or should he try to save the ruins of the building in order to reconstruct the envelope of the original building?
Considering that the motivation for the acquisition was to save the building, Langlois decided to take the path of the reconstruction even if this option meant a longer and more complex project than initially planned.
The initial restoration project therefore became, by necessity, a reconstruction project on a much larger scale than expected, including not only the restitution of the destroyed exterior envelope but also the reconstruction of the missing floors throughout the interior of the building, which were severely damaged by the fire.
Time was running out because for the reconstruction project to be possible, the ruins of the building had to be quickly protected from the elements. A temporary envelope covering the entire building was then put in place for protection which also allowed the start of the reconstruction work.
One of the collateral impacts associated with the extended delays required for the reconstruction of 357 de la Commune was the impossibility of its occupation by the head office of The Daniel Langlois Foundation, which was to occupy the building after the renovation. Given the scale and the prolonged duration of the reconstruction work, this occupation was no longer possible on the dates originally planned.
Protection of the ruins
Complete gutting out of the building and stabilization
The reconstruction began with the excavation of the original foundations deteriorated by time and which had the distinction of being erected on wooden skids, the foundation base resting on a beam or a tree trunk placed in line with the walls.
In order to stabilize the building, the original foundations had to be replaced with new concrete foundations, built deeper than the original foundations in order to reach virgin or stable soil levels. The excavation allowed the addition of a second basement to house most of the modern building mechanical equipment.
New concrete formwork was also integrated into the original stone structure of the exterior and interior walls to consolidate all doors and windows openings.
The second step was to repair, clean and replace all the stone elements that made up the main building envelope. Because several of these elements collapsed or were destroyed in the 1997 fire, they had to be reproduced by masons, skilled in carving stone using both traditional and modern techniques.
The stone tower at the base of the dome was one of the most damaged portions of the building. It needed to be completely disassembled and rebuilt by combining old and new elements.
Reconstruction of the foundations and excavation to add a new basement
Cleaning and preparation of stones, reconstruction of the tower
Because the mansard structures forming the 4th floor as well as the dome of the original building were made of wood, these floors were completely destroyed by the fire of 1997. In addition, the damage caused by the fire and the water extended to all the interior floors of the building, also made of wood, as a result the structural frames of the floors and dividing walls of these lower levels were irreparably weakened.
Very few interior elements of the original building survived the fire, except for a limited amount of woodwork in one of the small rooms set back on the second floor.
In addition of the dome and the mansard it was necessary to replace all the structural elements of the interior of the building. To build a new solid and durable inner structure more resistant to fire, steel and concrete were chosen to replace all of the building's wood structures.
The new dome structure was fully assembled on the ground in front of the building and then lifted in one piece to its final position at the top of the stone tower.
As a result of the construction of the new inner steel and concrete structures in 1999, the interior of the building and the dome are made up of contemporary elements offering new layout possibilities, some of which made the building conform to the new building code, like the integration of multiple emergency stairs invisible from the outside.
Construction of new steel and concrete structures
Assembly and installation of the dome
The final touch to the building envelope was the metal cladding of the new dome and of the 4th floor mansard.
Although the exterior finishing of the top floors of the original building was made of sheet metal, for the reconstruction copper was chosen, more durable and more representative of the stature of the building.
The original design of the mansard cladding had an interesting feature: the sheet metal had been shaped to emulate the appearance of dressed stone. The same concept was taken in all its details for the reconstruction but this time using leaded copper.
For the reconstruction of the dome, natural copper was used, and all the decorative elements of the original dome were reproduced except for the false portholes of the initial design, which were now transformed into real round windows, bringing more natural light to the interior of the dome which has become a truly usable space serving as access to a large roof terrace, added following the construction of the new internal steel structure.
The attentive work by a team of very experienced craftsmen produced the exceptional finish of the copper elements which now adorn 357 de la Commune.
Reconstruction of the cornices and the cladding of the tinned copper mansard
Reproduction in natural copper of the dome
In parallel with the reconstruction of the envelope of the main building, a brand new pavilion was built behind the original edifice. The footprint of the new pavilion roughly matches a potential addition proposed in 1913 by architects Maxwell Brothers as well as the concrete blocks building that was erected in 1958 to house a garage and office space.
Inspired by the secondary structures, often glazed, that were attached to some of Montreal mansions of the second half of the 19th century, one of the objectives behind the creation of the new pavilion was to design a new addition using technologies and concepts of contemporary architecture while aiming for a seamless integration of the new pavilion with the original building in terms of volumes, materials and transparency.
The new pavilion is made up of a glass and aluminum structure complemented by a turret clad with rubble stone reminiscent of the shape of the windmill built on the site in 1648. The transparency of the pavilion provides a direct visual contact with the original building. The large open room under the glazed canopy endowed with natural light offers possibilities of complementary usage to the interior spaces of the main building, such as a swimming pool whose basin can be covered to become an exhibition room, performance space, etc.
The completed new pavilion and glass house
The main reconstruction work on the Harbour Commissioners' building was completed towards the end of 2000.
The 357 de la Commune now has a stone facade meticulously rebuilt and structurally solidified on the lower floors and, on the upper floors, a new mansard and a new dome reproducing the original architectural elements.
The interior of the building is an entirely new construction which includes all the mechanical services of a modern building. Particular attention was paid to the integration of all mechanical systems and emergency stairs so that they are invisible from the outside in order to keep the building's appearance similar to the original one.
The construction of new internal structures on all floors of the building has made it possible to improve the possible configurations of the volumes of the building, thus allowing the creation of various interior arrangements, combining both traditionally inspired spaces with others of purely contemporary design.
The new pavilion with its glass canopy, located at the rear of the main building, brings a clearly contemporary touch to the whole, emphasizing that the fact that the Harbour Commissioners' building, although more than a century old, is also well-suited to face the future.
357 de la Commune today
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