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The LaFontaine House: Crumbling Mansion Central to Canadian Democracy

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--October 20, 2016.

lafontaine.jpgThe house at 1395 Overdale Ave. is a mess, its smashed windows boarded up, its walls covered in graffiti. It hasn’t been occupied since police evicted squatters in 2001.

But not all the damage is the work of 21st-century vandals. The pockmarks on the grey-stone façade are from a much earlier assault — 1849, when a rioting mob fired gunshots hoping to kill the mansion’s owner, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine.
William Notman
William NotmanLouis-Hippolyte LaFontaine was prime minister of the united province of Canada.

Home to the man who with Robert Baldwin is credited with establishing responsible government in Canada, the house was the scene of dramatic conflict and passionate debate, a crucible of Canada’s parliamentary democracy. But today it stands as a monument to neglect and time is running out before 1395 Overdale becomes the address of just another luxury condominium.

John Ralston Saul, who wrote about LaFontaine and Baldwin for the Extraordinary Canadians series of books, said the period from 1848-51, when LaFontaine was prime minister of the united province of Canada, was fundamental to the country’s future.

LaFontaine’s house, which he bought in 1849, was central to that story.

“The planning, the putting together of how Canada would become a democracy, took place to a great extent in that house,” Saul said in an interview.

Twice in 1849 it was attacked by anti-democratic forces that had burned the parliament building in Old Montreal, but the democrats resisted.

“Of all the buildings that are central to Canada becoming a democracy, it’s the only important one left,” Saul said.

Today, there is a major park and an expressway tunnel named after LaFontaine in Montreal, but historian Jacques Monet said he merits greater recognition.

“LaFontaine is arguably — and one would win the argument — the first prime minister of Canada,” said Monet, director of the Canadian Institute of Jesuit Studies and author of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on LaFontaine.

“We usually say (John A.) Macdonald because he’s after Confederation, but the first one who got responsible government — that is, that the governor agrees that he has to take the advice of whoever has the majority in the House — was LaFontaine.”

The LaFontaine House almost fell to the wrecking ball in the 1980s, but the city stepped in at the last minute to protect it with a heritage designation. Since then, it has been the subject of recurring debate as conservationists called on various levels of government to intervene to prevent it from falling further into ruin.

Hopes were raised when the Brivia Group bought the property in 2011, part of its purchase of an entire downtown block bordered by René Lévesque Boulevard to the north and Overdale to the south. As part of its project, which includes townhouses along Overdale and two 38-storey condo towers on René-Lévesque, the developer agreed to restore the exterior of LaFontaine House to its original condition as faithfully as possible.

“At the very beginning, the first thing I noticed was the potential of this house. Rather than considering it an obstacle, I thought it could be an opportunity,” said Stefano Domenici, an architect who has worked on the project for Brivia.

But in the years since the purchase, neither governments nor philanthropists have presented a concrete plan to convert the house into a museum celebrating LaFontaine and the birth of Canadian democracy.

“In Italian, you say lots of smoke and no roast,” Domenici said. “There have been a lot of people talking about it, but nobody has put together a business plan with money.”

He said he has grown frustrated with delays and sees a division of the house into condos as the most likely outcome.

“If no one does anything it will be turned into high-end luxury condominiums that are going to sell at a very high price,” he said. Museum backers could end up in a bidding war with a millionaire charmed by the house.

“If some Russian tycoon comes in and says, ‘I like that building, I want it,’ the owners are going to sign the sales contract as fast as they can,” Domenici said.

Part of the problem is nobody seems able to agree who should be taking the lead.

Heritage Montreal, which lobbies for the protection of the city’s heritage buildings, said it makes sense for the federal government, which designates national historic sites, to protect the home of a man considered the first prime minister of Canada. But it says Ottawa has “proven regrettably indifferent.”

Michael Fish, a Montreal architect who has been fighting to preserve LaFontaine House since the 1980s, said the city should buy the house before it becomes condos.

“If it’s a condo, everyone forgets what its significance is. It’s lost,” he said.

In its current state, the property should not be prohibitively expensive. “It’s a ruin,” he said.

Sen. Serge Joyal, who has also been part of the fight to preserve the house from the beginning, said condos would be “totally contrary to the historical value of the house.”

The building should house a centre celebrating “the birth of responsible government in Canada … LaFontaine is the first of the prime ministers of Canada who has really established the democratic principle of government.”

Joyal said the city should expropriate the lot on which the house sits and work with Parks Canada to develop it as a historical attraction.

Natalie Fay, a spokeswoman for the federal agency said the Historic Sites & Monuments Board of Canada considered whether the house should be designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1987, but rejected the idea.

There was no word on whether the board is planning to reconsider the decision.

With cranes rising behind it and construction crews pouring the foundation for an underground parking garage practically in its backyard, the future of LaFontaine House looks precarious.

Saul said authorities should act before it is too late.

“For Montreal it’s a fantastic opportunity, because it’s an assertion of the fact that Montreal is a national city and that Montreal is the home of democracy in Quebec and in Canada,” he said.

“I think it’s very important that Parks Canada, the government of Canada, the political parties, the provincial government, that everybody take a stand. It’s just a matter of money and not that much money.”