Saint Catherine Street

Saint Catherine Street first appeared in 1758 when a landowner created a small stretch of it in the Faubourg Saint-Laurent neighbourhood, which was rather far from the city at the time. It would take close to a century-and-a-half for the street to be developed to its full length, which is a little over 11 km.

Starting around the middle of the 19th century, upper-class families that lived in the old city began moving to new residential neighbourhoods—with Anglophones going west, to the foot of the mountain, and Francophones moving east, around Saint-Denis and Saint-Hubert streets.

Very rapidly, these new residential neighbourhoods brought about the development of neighbourhood businesses, grocery stores, and little shops on Saint Catherine Street… And since the clientele consisted of Montreal’s wealthiest customers, it of course drew the biggest stores.

Merchants got the idea to move out of Old Montréal and into these new neighbourhoods.

The first to do so was Mr. Morgan, who set up shop across from Phillips Square in 1891… but in doing so, he also expanded his store, making it three-and-a-half times bigger than the one he had in Old Montreal. It was the first of what we call the big department stores.

In the beginning, these big stores were essentially for the rich…

Ordinary citizens, workers, did not really have the means to shop there.

Big stores were true palaces of commerce, of consumption. They were something entirely new.

From that moment on, other retailers also moved onto Saint Catherine Street, making it the major street for retail business and, in particular, the major street for fashion in Montreal.

From very early on, there were tramways running on the street. As early as 1864, they were horse-drawn trams, and, in 1892—when tramways were converted to electricity—Saint Catherine Street got its electric streetcar lines. There were up to ten or so different lines running to Saint Catherine Street.

This meant that, from that moment on, Montrealers from every neighbourhood could come shop on Saint Catherine Street.

The big stores began drawing a clientele that no longer simply consisted of the upper-class but was instead a much larger clientele from other neighbourhoods.

The city was burgeoning. At the end of the 19th century, there were a quarter of a million people living in Montreal. In 1911, there were half a million. So, there was a large clientele for these big stores.

And so, fashion became one of the cornerstones of Saint Catherine Street.

A second type of activity came along at the end of the 19th century… We began to see performance halls appear along Saint Catherine Street, hosting concerts, plays, vaudeville shows… And these multiplied along the street, making it a destination for culture and entertainment, in addition to commerce.

And it continued to develop in this way.

In the early 20th century, when cinema came into the picture, many movie theatres chose to open up on Saint Catherine Street, with the first theatre dedicated solely to presenting films—the Ouimétoscope—located on Saint Catherine Street.

Between 1917 and 1922, several large movie palaces were built, consisting of some 2,000 to 3,000 seats. These became entertainment destinations, which remained in use until the 1960s or 70s.

In addition to these, the early 20th century saw the appearance of office buildings, often some ten storeys tall, housing businesses that kept their head offices in Old Montreal but also needed to have offices around Saint Catherine Street.

Doctors, dentists, and lawyers opened offices in the area as well.

A fourth sector of activity was the manufacturing industry, which had established itself a little further east on Saint Catherine Street—around De Lorimier Street—in the late 19th century and which, at the start of the 20th, drew garment industry workshops to the area.

Buildings were constructed—like the Jacobs, the Belgo, and the Blumenthal—which were large buildings housing several garment industry workshops.

In the area, very close to Saint Catherine Street, there was also what we called the fur district, located around Mayor Street.

Beginning in the 1920s, and especially after the Second World War, more and more businesses moved their head offices to the new downtown, around Saint Catherine Street… such as Sun Life, Canada Cement, and other companies.

This movement became irrevocable in the early 1960s when the Place Ville Marie complex opened, followed by several other office towers that were not directly on Saint Catherine Street but just south of it, along the new Dorchester Boulevard, which opened up in 1955 and went on to become the prestigious street that is today René-Lévesque Boulevard.

So, conclusively, as of the 1960s, there was only one downtown in Montreal and Saint Catherine Street was its commercial component—the section for retail business, entertainment, and restaurants… while offices were instead located just to the north or south. But Saint Catherine Street was really the heart of this new downtown.

The 1960s also brought about a new type of upheaval—the burgeoning suburbs. And with these suburbs came a new invention—the suburban shopping mall.

As time went on, fewer and fewer suburbanites came to shop on Saint Catherine Street and instead frequented the suburban shopping centres, which—starting in the 1960s—began to lead to the decline, and ultimately to the closure, of several of the large stores, like Simpson’s, Eaton’s, and Dupuis.

Morgan’s, which was purchased by The Bay, kept its large footprint, but it is the only real remaining witness. A whole swath of history fell by the wayside.

But despite it all, Saint Catherine Street’s power of attraction was so strong that many chain stores still wanted to have a shopfront on the street. So they nevertheless came to open shop here, even though the street did not have the power of attraction it once had.

It should be said that, at that time, and especially beginning in the 1960s, even though the phenomenon had started sometime earlier, tourism also brought new life to Saint Catherine Street. There were large hotels nearby.

Tourists visiting Montreal came to shop on Saint Catherine Street, or simply to stroll along the street.

This meant that fashion still remained one of Saint Catherine Street’s major anchor points, despite all the upheaval this sector had experienced.

What about the street’s other major vocation—as a destination for culture and entertainment?

Here too, the impression is one of carnage, as major movie palaces disappeared, were replaced by cinema complexes and, little by little, overwhelmingly made the move to the suburbs, where parking is easier… with downtown and Saint Catherine Street left to play a minor role in the cinema sector.

But at the same time, there were other types of cultural activities that underwent an expansion.

An especially important moment came with the opening of Montreal’s Place des Arts, on Saint Catherine Street—first with the big performance hall, which is called Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, and then with the addition of two more performance halls in 1967. Eventually, the museum of contemporary art was added and, in the early 21st century, the Maison symphonique.

Place des Arts became a true cultural complex and a key draw… and around it, theatres, art galleries, etc., settled into the area.

The late 1980s saw the arrival of major festivals. First off, the Jazz Festival, which was held on Saint Catherine Street starting in 1989, with several other festivals following the trend.

This made Saint Catherine Street a major cultural hub… and early in the 21st century, this idea was bolstered by the creation of what has been called the Quartier des spectacles (entertainment district), with the designing of large public spaces for the presentation of outdoor performances and festivals, and the strengthening of ties between all of the cultural organizations in this entertainment district.

So this is how culture has contributed to the rebirth of Saint Catherine Street in the late-20th century and early-21st century.