Saving Meadowbrook is key to protecting our landscape heritage

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By ERICA BROWN, The Gazette February 24, 2011

We’ll never know how W Sir William Van Horne would have reacted to the destruction in 1973 of his mansion at Sherbrooke and Stanley Sts. because the railway tycoon and builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway died in 1915.

We do know that on the evening the Victorian builing was demolished, John Colicos, who portrayed Van Horne in the CBC miniseries The National Dream, called the wrecking “a shame and a disgrace.” By morning, the last remaining Canadian example of a Collonna Art Nouveau interior was mounds of rubble.

The demolition was a hinge event, marking a turning point for Montreal’s architectural heritage that remained in private hands. Like campaigning Venuses emerging from dusty waves of debris, groups of citizens arose, intent on historic and cultural preservation. They would continue to prod the city administration to create bylaws protecting heritage zones and restricting development, realizing the truth of what Thomas Fuller wrote in the mid-18th century, “We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”

Now another Van Horne legacy, the 57 sylvan hectares of Meadowbrook Golf Club, faces the threat of development. The club, formerly the Canadian Pacific Recreation Association’s park for its railway workers and a golf course since the 1920s, has been a bone of contention between citizens who want to preserve the green space intact, and the developer Group Pacific who wants to build condos on it.

Last fall Alan DeSousa, vice-chair of Montreal’s executive committee, announced that the city would not approve the developer’s plans for Meadowbrook. Future development still remains possible, however. Perhaps it is time to recognize that it is not only our architectural heritage that is worth preserving. We have a landscape heritage to protect as well.

Ironically, today’s battles to protect and naturalize green spaces echo the efforts of the city’s early landscape architects to preserve what they created. The reality is that the parks in which today we cycle, play and walk our dogs were created by 19th and early-20th century visionaries. Preserving their landscape designs required civic commitment and constant vigilance, which just like today was often in short supply, and their parks’ acreage diminished as the years went by.

Creating them in the first place took commendable acts of municipal vision and a willingness to innovate. More than 135 years ago, Montreal’s parks were born during a golden age of landscape architecture. In 1874, Montreal hired Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park fame, to create a park out of the Royal Montreal Golf Club and the hobby farms situated on Fletcher’s Field on the east side of Mount Royal. It was not alone. Parc Lafontaine was established from a British garrison on land that was once the experimental farm of James Logan. Angrignon Parc, then countryside and fox-hunting grounds, was saved from development by the city of Verdun in 1930. Parc des Rapides and Parc Dorval were transformed from golf courses, and Parc Maisonneuve, which originally contained a golf course, was protected when the Olympic Park was created.

The first to use the term “landscape architect,” Olmsted gifted Montreal with the English garden look and with his experience, convincing city hall to create green havens for city dwellers. Holding that “lives are shortened and made painful by city air,” he designed the winding trails and soothing vistas that mark his parks. Presciently, Olmsted also predicted the ills of littering, pollution, and city blight, long before doing so became common wisdom.

Olmsted’s acolyte, Frederick Todd, arrived in Montreal from Massachusetts in 1900 to work with his mentor and never left. Todd turned Olmsted’s precepts into public and private projects across Canada, producing gems that inhabitants take for granted.

Todd certainly left his mark on Montreal. Because of him we have Beaver Lake, created on a site originally chosen by Olmsted and appropriately over an ancient beaver dam. Todd designed the Town of Mount Royal and the chalet on the mountain, and transformed the deserted garrison of Île Ste. Hélène into a park.

In the late 1950s, another visionary, Montreal Parks director Claude Robillard, tried to revive the city’s illustrious heritage of acquiring private lands for the public park system, declaring that 15 per cent of Montreal land should be reserved as green space. His message often fell on the deaf ears of Jean Drapeau, who clearly believed that If We Build It, Tourists Will Come.

It’s not a bad idea to raise ghosts for good causes. Every time we’re in a Montreal park, we’d do well to remember what we owe to Robillard, Olmsted and Todd. Olmsted’s warning that it’s impossible to recapture space to which urbanites can escape is timely given Meadowbrook’s uncertain future. Just as gardeners know that to naturalize and maintain the picturesque takes effort, we should apply equal effort to reclaim our landscape heritage.

Olmstead was right in his own day, and he remains so today, when he said: “conserve, protect, build only what is necessary.”

Erica Brown is a freelance writer and editor living in N.D.G.
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