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Paul Desmarais, Sr., Builder and Benefactor
In October 1986, Paul Desmarais Sr., as well as Bernard and Louise Lamarre, along with a few friends, including Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Senator Leo Kolber and his wife, Sandra, were aboard in the Trans-Siberian, on the world’s longest continuous rail line—over nine thousand kilometres, eight days and nights, through Europe and Asia, from Moscow to the Pacific Ocean.
Each evening, in the dining car, Bernard Lamarre would continue working on his friend Paul Desmarais, asking him for help in kick-starting expansion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He had an impressive arsenal of arguments that he could deploy one after the other if necessary, never doubting that he would eventually extract the desired amount before the train arrived at its destination, Vladivostok. It was a fine large-scale project, and Desmarais loved big projects, especially those involving architecture.
Lamarre can be a superb storyteller; he knows how to spice up a narrative, introduce unexpected twists and turns, and build up to the punchline. The first evening on the train, he entertained his fellow guests with a history of the Museum. Only toward the end of the meal did he mention the project that he had been considering for a couple of years now, a project that he assured Desmarais he would love. He wanted to expand the Museum, to build a new building that would double its exhibition and storage space so that it would finally be able to play a role on the world stage.
Lamarre recounted how, with a view to its expansion, the Museum had acquired the buildings directly across from its Maxwell brothers building on Sherbrooke Street and seven houses on Crescent Street. He then told his travelling companions how he had approached the federal and provincial governments, which (much to his surprise) had both reacted favourably to his project.
A Closely Watched Project
The project was underway, but it immediately encountered strong opposition from Heritage Montreal, architect Phyllis Lambert, Montreal mayor Jean Doré, and a great many businesspeople, urban planners, artists, and other stakeholders. They debated what should be done with the New Sherbrooke, the five-storey rental property at the corner of Sherbrooke and Bishop streets. Demolish it? Preserve its exterior walls? Keep the whole building intact?
It was a still solid and sound building from 1905, but of relatively little architectural interest. Several of the first drawings submitted by Moshe Safdie called for complete demolition of the New Sherbrooke and construction of a striking new building with a façade, spanning Crescent to Bishop Streets, that would echo the monumental portico of the 1912 museum just across the street. However, the proposal, presented in the winter of 1987 in an exhibition entitled The Museum of the Future, was quickly met with a public outcry. It was feared that such an imposing building would overwhelm the urban fabric around it. However, the very influential Phyllis Lambert, founding director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture and long-time heritage advocate, was against Safdie’s proposal and in favour of conserving the New Sherbrooke.
Ultimately, it looked as though it would be impossible to preserve the building’s volume. In his final proposal, which integrated the New Sherbrooke facade, Safdie nevertheless retained the idea of a massive portico for the entrance revealing a glass-roofed lobby onto which opened the five floors of the building. Clearly visible from the street, the new edifice was bright, airy, and inviting, also modern, while at the same time very respectful of its surroundings. Full of echoes of the neighbouring buildings, it was very Montreal and satisfied the demands of heritage advocates. Ultimately, it looked as though it would be impossible to preserve the building’s volume. In his final proposal, which integrated the New Sherbrooke facade, Safdie nevertheless retained the idea of a massive portico for the entrance revealing a glass-roofed lobby onto which opened the five floors of the building. Clearly visible from the street, the new edifice was bright, airy, and inviting, also modern, while at the same time very respectful of its surroundings. Full of echoes of the neighbouring buildings, it was very Montreal and satisfied the demands of heritage advocates.
It seemed natural, even essential, not only to Desmarais, but to all the Board members, for the new pavilion to be connected to the older buildings by an underground passage beneath Sherbrooke Street. This would add $16 million to the cost. So, hat in hand, Lamarre went to seek another $8 million each from the federal government and the provincial government, bringing their total contribution to the project to $66 million. Construction began in the spring of 1989, and it was agreed that the Museum’s activities would not be interrupted or reduced, as they had been between 1973 and 1976.