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Heritage In Danger: The Desrochers House, St-Leonard District, Montreal

Thanks to sites being registered on the annual Heritage Montreal list of endangered sites, in 2013, the media brought to light the St-Leonard housing co-op and its sneaky disappearance – which was caused by the lack of a regulatory framework in the St-Leonard district.

The largest grouping of bungalows ever built in Quebec, according to a cooperative management model, this co-op constitutes the first real estate development that would transform the rural landscape of St-Leonard into a suburban one. However, it does not seem to have gained any immediate popularity with the decision-making authorities of the district.

Maison Saint-Leonard, Montreal, Canada

Unfortunately, the average bungalow is still principally being analyzed in service of the notion of historicity. Therefore, it has a hard time imposing itself as a heritage element since it belongs to a recent past and does not show any traditional character, as opposed to most of the buildings to which the majority of people attach themselves.

By way of these givens, we are led to believe that the district is more concerned with protecting buildings showing the traditional character of the heritage model: In this case, these would be some of the old surviving farm houses of rural St-Leonard. However, this is far from the truth.

Since the 1950s, the near totality of old farm residences has been erased from the St-Leonard landscape. At the beginning of the 1970s, 20 old houses of the rural era still survived along Rue Jarry. A good number of them had immediately been converted into apartments or into local businesses, or indeed, were even abandoned. A St-Leonard Municipal Council study led by the urban council member Gaetan Richard in 1975 had recommended initiating the process for the provincial government to declare a portion of Rue Jarry near the church as a historic district (today, a heritage site by virtue of the LPQ). This historic district project obviously never saw daylight, and the majority of the houses located in the study area were demolished less than a decade later. In the 1990s, the City of St-Leonard itself demolished an old residence that it owned in order to replace it with a CLSC (local community service centre).

Église Saint-Léonard, Montreal, Canada

As of 2014, besides the church, its presbytery and cemetery, no more than 10 houses survive. Through their presence, they stand witness to St-Leonard's rural past. Nine of these houses are located along Rue Jarry, while the 10th – there is clear evidence it was moved – stands on Rue des Forges. Of these 10 residences, five are made of gray stone. Four of these stone residences have always been inhabited, whereas the fifth was transformed into a restaurant. Two of these residences, the Dagenais and Gervais-Roy houses, are for that matter classified as heritage buildings through the law on cultural heritage.

At the corner of Rue Jarry East and Rue du Creusot stands the Desrochers house, an old farm house built in 1858. Until 2011, it neighbored a bungalow built in the 1950s. Following the demolition of the bungalow, the site remained vacant, but the many mature trees planted along the street survived. These two vegetated sites contrast with the surrounding landscape since parking lots dominate in large part this section of Rue Jarry, where commercial uses are omnipresent.

Saint-Léonard, Montréal, Canada

In most Montreal districts, the regulation on demolitions does not authorize a building to be demolished unless there is a proposal for a replacement project that conforms to all regulations. In St-Leonard, the situation is entirely different and for the past three years the site has remained vacant. The situation could change immediately in the near future since a sign announcing a future real estate project was recently placed on the site. If the project materializes, the trees will be taken down, and a two-story building, with businesses and offices, will be built right next to the residence that encapsulates more than 150 years of history.

Therefore, if the commercial building is constructed, the future of the Desrochers house is uncertain. It will not be demolished, but its location between two commercial complexes will do considerable damage to its value. Without a doubt, it will eventually be converted into a commercial building, like it was in the 1980s. Parking replaced its gardens then, and all the efforts its owners have made to give it value would be erased.

The construction of commercial buildings in this district cannot be avoided since the zoning allows for it. However, in this case, a regulation that does not permit the demolition of a single-family residence without the presentation of a conforming replacement project would allow for avoiding a mistake that will eventually materialize in the form of a cubical building dressed up in orange and charcoal facing.

How long until the regulations are rewritten and a regulatory clause is put into place with the aim of preserving and giving value to the heritage of the St-Leonard district?

How do we define what buildings are valuable? What is considered heritage in your community?

Original article, published in French, can be found here.

Credits: Data and images linked to sources.