The tallest of them all (in 1888)
Little Giant It had electric lights, an elevator and mail chute where you could drop letters from any floor. More impressive, the New York Life Insurance Building at 511 Place d'Armes was Montreal's first skyscraper - at eight storeys high



MARIAN SCOTT, The Gazette
Published: 6 hours ago


From the top floor of Montreal's first skyscraper, you can see ... Well, not much, to tell the truth.

Crane your neck from the eighth floor of 511 Place d'Armes and you can make out the statue of Montreal founder Paul Chomedey sieur de Maisonneuve in the square, and the roof of the Vieux Séminaire, adjoining Notre Dame Basilica.

But back in 1888, oh my! Eight storeys high was a dizzying height, indeed.

The New York Life Insurance Building boasted the latest in modern conveniences.

Electric lights! An elevator! And a mail chute where you could drop letters from any floor! Impressed? Perhaps not, but back in the gaslight era, these were state-of-the-art innovations.

The New York Life had its own generator to provide power to the offices.

Imagine a city where the only tall structures were church spires. Just the twin towers of Notre Dame soared higher than the clock tower that sits atop the New York Life.

Rising to 40 metres, its facade of red sandstone - imported all the way from Dumfriesshire, Scotland - made a splash against the grey limestone buildings of Old Montreal. The arched doorway and upper windows evoke the Italian Renaissance.

"Look, even the smallest detail is decorated," says Madeleine Forget, admiring the carved entrance, with its intricate wrought-iron grille. Forget is an architectural historian who wrote a history of the city's early high-rises (Les Gratte-ciel de Montréal, Éditions du Méridien, 1990).

Sculptor Henri Beaumont created the intricate carvings of urns, garlands and masks in the doorway.

When the New York Life was built, from 1887 to 1889, architects were just starting to figure out the secrets of high-rise construction.

The first ingredient was the elevator. In 1852, Elisha Graves Otis invented the safety brake for elevators. He installed the world's first passenger lift in a New York department store in 1857.

The second ingredient was steel.

Traditionally, the walls of a building supported the structure. The taller the building, the thicker the walls needed to be.

The walls of Chicago's 17-storey Monadnock Building, completed in 1893, are two metres thick at ground level.

Steel-frame construction allowed buildings to reach for the sky. A steel skeleton supported the structure, with the exterior walls hanging from it, like curtains. Chicago's 11-storey Home Insurance Building, constructed in 1885, was the first to use this construction method.

Montreal would have to wait until 1895 for its first steel-frame building, the Canada Life Assurance on St. Jacques St.

Designed by New York architects Babb, Cook & Willard, the New York Life has supporting masonry walls and steel floors.

"The New York Life Building," wrote a visitor, "is one of the most imposing in the City." Its construction ushered in Montreal's "office era," noted the late Gazette history columnist Edgar Andrew Collard.

The lantern in the entrance is original, as are the beige marble walls and mosaic floor. The hall boasts a coffered ceiling and staircase with an elegant, filigreed banister.

Inside, the building is surprisingly modest in scale. Grand lobbies with hordes of scurrying office workers would come later in the history of office buildings, Forget says.

"It looks bigger (from the outside) than it is," says Guylaine Villeneuve, director of operations for the building.

The New York Life Co. had its Canadian head office on the fourth floor and a library on the eighth. The other floors were rented out.

The Quebec Bank, whose name is carved over the entrance, occupied the ground floor. It bought the building in 1909 and was absorbed into the Royal Bank in 1917.

For 12 years, only three eight-storey buildings - the New York Life, Canada Life and Telegraph Chambers Buildings - would rise above the skyline.

After 1900, 11-storey buildings began to dot the cityscape. In the 1920s, office buildings with towers set back from the street appeared. One is the art-deco Aldred Building next door to the New York Life.

Last year, owner Bechara Helal built two penthouse apartments on the roof, one of which he occupies, Villeneuve says.

Tourists sometimes stop to read the brass plaque identifying the building as Montreal's first skyscraper, but few come in, she says.

Today, the New York Life barely rates a glance among the soaring structures cluttering the skyline.

But what it lacks in stature, it gains in well-bred elegance. Dwarfed by modern high-rises, the building preserves a memory of the era when eight storeys was a dazzling height.

mascot@thegazette.canwest.com

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