Montreal – the Stairs

Montreal special architecture symbol of development


In the unusual year of 2020, while the museums were still closed, as soon as we were allowed by our government, I decided to invite the kids to go see a less sold and less publicized part of Montreal: its stairs.

As in all big cities, the districts do not quite resemble each other but all have their charm. Around Parc Lafontaine in Montreal, there is a greater concentration of housing with this particular distinctive look, the predominance of outdoor stairs.

You might wonder what motivated the builders and the families to accept this type of structure. With the cold winters of Montreal where frost, ice and snow last 5 months a year, what encourages Montrealers to build stairs like this?

Well, for the facts, we have to go back in time and understand the reality of the end of the 19th century.  The city was welcoming more and more working families. The quick increase of new housing in a limited area brought a different approach to accommodate multiple families.  “Shoe box” houses (I’ll get back on this), duplexes and triplexes made with narrow facades was the solution. In addition, to maximize the backyard space, these homes were built right next to the sidewalk.

Shoe box houses are single family, one level houses with flat roofs, and simple rudiments, also popular during the same time in Montreal.

However, around the 1940s, since the buildings were built very close to the sidewalk, the mayor raised a concern about the quality of air in the city and a by-law was passed which required homeowners to have a minimum of greenery on the front of their residences that would allow for the planting of trees.  This brought architectural challenges. So now, combined, we have limited space, large families to house and the new requirement to have green areas in front of the houses.

The solution: they moved the houses back from the street and exteriorized the stairs. This idea allowed tenants to have direct access to their homes, avoid the necessity to heat the empty stair space and keep the maximum living space.

This solution transformed the front land into different stair customizations. The shapes, the colors, and the material surprise and give life to the city but it was not always perceived this way. The pressure of haters in the early days was so intense that the construction of new units with exterior staircases was, for decades, prohibited.  Eventually, it was reversed and, today, these houses, bordered with mature trees, have become beautiful streets and several tenants have embellished their small spaces even more with sculptures, gardens and flowers.

These streets and these stairs are now an architectural emblem which is part of the history and heritage of Montreal. We now find them on postcards and artists are inspired.

Now, if you walk in the area, you will notice that the famous stairs are not necessarily straight; they can be curved, combined for multiple units or in independent spirals, symmetrical or twin, in the form of S, T, L or Y, with or without a tray halfway and this is to get to the first, second or even the third floor. You might see the stairs differently since you have a better idea of the story of the stairs of Montreal which is indeed a distinct stamp of Montreal.

We look at them with a little astonishment.