Montrealers refer to the 660-foot tree-covered hill simply as "the Mountain." Mount Royal-with its
130-foot-high illuminated cross erected in 1924 by the Société St-Jean Baptiste—dominates the Montreal skyline. It is the symbol and the heart of the city founded on the mountain’s slopes 346 years ago. To generations of Montrealers, the 430-acre park at the mountain’s summit has been a refuge
from the pressures of city life.
Families picnic on its broad lawns, children play beside manmade Beaver Lake, and lovers stroll along its shady pathways, dodging joggers and cyclists. The park was designed 114 years ago by renowned American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—the designer of New York City’s Central Park—at the request of the city. But now, Mount Royal is anything but grand. In fact, urban designers and citizens’ groups spokesmen say that decades of neglect, bad management and poor judgment by civic authorities entrusted with Olmsted’s legacy have cast the park’s future into doubt.
The litany of problems facing Mount Royal is alarming.
Until August, 1987, when the city appointed Pierre Emile Rocray, former deputy superintendent of Montreal’s botanical gardens, as permanent
administrator of the park, the city had no central planner. The legacy of neglect is obvious. Staircases are collapsing. Pathways, undermined by topsoil erosion resulting from a poorly designed drainage system, are deteriorating. But the city is beginning to take the problems seriously. As well as naming a full-time administrator, civic officials officially designated Mount Royal a heritage site last year—with much stricter planning controls. They also commissioned several studies of the mountain and said that they will hold public hearings on the park’s future next spring when those studies are completed.
Olmsted envisaged Mount Royal as an oasis of natural tranquility in the centre of a growing city. He designed a series of sweeping carriage paths to transport visitors gradually away from the noisy streets to the thick forest of oak, maple and birch near the summit. Mount Royal, Olmsted decreed, should stand “in winning competition against the
sordid and corrupting temptations of the town.” But many Montrealers say that the park is losing the battle.
Beaver Lake is rarely cleaned. A chalet housing a snack bar and offices is in disrepair, with rotting wood and peeling paint. The upper lookout over the city and most of the park pathways need repaving. Olmsted’s original landscaping has gradually been obscured by construction, including the red-
brick McGill University residences on the southeastern slope of the mountain and a broadcasting tower at the summit. And many of the park entrances are on thoroughfares that have become far busier since the park was first created, making pedestrian access difficult and, at times, dangerous.
Indeed, Christophe Caron, president of a consulting firm that recently completed a study on Mount Royal, estimated that solving the mountain’s problems would cost between $80 million and $100 million. According to Caron, that money would be spent for new planting, fences, lighting, pathways and drains and on relocating access gates and roads. Declared Caron: “You don’t have to be a designer to see the ongoing degradation of the city’s most important landmark.”
The recent increase in concern about the park results in part from several unpopular development proposals during the last days of the administration of legendary mayor
Jean Drapeau, who held office from 1960 to 1986 and backed grandiose and costly projects such as Expo 67 and the Olympic Stadium. In 1986, an engineering firm proposed the construction of a structure resembling Toronto’s CN Tower to house an observation deck and restaurant at Mount Royal’s summit. As well, McGill University wanted to build an athletic complex on the park’s southeastern corner. But Les Amis de la montagne (The Friends of the Mountain,), an umbrella organization of smaller groups and concerned citizens, got together to fight those proposals, and, since then, the organization has successfully lobbied the administration of Mayor Jean Doré, who took office in 1986, to make preservation of the mountain a priority. Declared Nathalie Zinger, a spokesman for the group: “We have been working very hard to
get our message across because this mountain has a definite symbolic value for Montrealers.”
Caron, for one, said that the studies and hearings on Mount Royal’s future are a start to solving the park’s problems. But, he added, “what is also needed is the political will to take action to solve the problems in the long term.” For his part, Rocray has already begun negotiations with hospitals, universities and other organizations with buildings bordering on the mountain to let the public cross their properties for easier access to the park. But, as Olmsted wrote in a letter to city officials in 1881: “Without a fixed leading purpose, you cannot spend a dollar on the mountain with any assurance that it is not wasted.” More than a century later, Montrealers are still searching for that purpose.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.