Place d’Armes is Montréal’s second-oldest public space, created in 1693 on the initiative of the Sulpicians following the purchase of land lying north of the parish church. At the time it was known as the “Place de la Fabrique.” It was soon referred to as a place civique (civic square), as decrees and orders were read there after church services.

It was later expanded northward, and used for military manoeuvres after the fire 1721 around Place Royale. From then on it became known as the Place d’Armes, and eventually became the site of tragic events. The French regiments laid down their arms to the British forces there in September 1760. Three French Canadians were shot dead by British troops in the Place during fighting in 1832. And the Fils de la Liberté (Sons of Freedom) fought members of the Doric Club there in 1837; the army had to be called in.

The notion of a place d’armes in an urban space dates to the late 17th century. It was an open space, earthen or grass-covered, used as a military exercise and parade ground, but also as a public park where city dwellers would gather.

Place d'Armes in 1775
Governor Guy Carleton reviews British troops on Place d’Armes in 1775 on the eve of the American Invasion of Canada.
Call no.: 4-63a-a
Source: BAnQ, Fonds Massicotte

In 1773, at the initiative of a group citizens, a bust of King George III was erected in the Place. The first known public monument in Montréal, it was the victim of more than one crime of lèse-majesté: daubed with paint and adorned with a necklace of potatoes and a cross, it bore the inscription “Voilà le pape du Canada et le sot anglais” (“Here is the pope of Canada and the English fool”). It disappeared soon after, during the American invasion, and was only found several years later at the bottom of a well in the Place.

Buste de George III
Head from a Bust of George III, 1765
Joseph Wilton 1765, of the Natural History Society of Montréal Call no.: M15885
Source: © McCord Museum

Place d'Armes in 1807
Place d'Armes en 1807 à Montréal / Neuville Bazin (copie). – 1942
Call no.: 194207184
Source: BAnQ, Fonds ministère de la Culture et des Communications
Comment: This watercolour depicting hay wagons provides a good illustration of the commercial activity in the Place around the turn of the 19th century.

The Place was later used as a hay and wood market from 1781, until a new hay market opened in Victoria Square in 1813.

It was transformed into a Victorian garden after the city acquired it from the Sulpicians in 1836; with its walkways, trees and central fountain, it became a popular spot for the upper crust of society to go for a stroll and be seen.

With the growth of Montréal’s English-speaking population, Place d’Armes was soon dubbed the “French square,” no doubt because of the presence of imposing monuments such as Notre-Dame Basilica and the Sulpician seminary—clear identity markers of the city’s original founders.

The Place took on a new meaning in 1895 with the construction of the monument to Maisonneuve: it became a space commemorating the founding of the city, aimed at all citizens and strongly affirming the French presence and its vital character.

With the dismantling of the elements characteristic of the Victorian square in 1914, the Place in essence became a traffic intersection, which soon led to the construction of the underground washrooms. This period lasted around a half-century, until the Place’s conversion to the layout we know today. With its redevelopment according to a more modern architectural language, in anticipation of the Universal Exposition of 1967, the Place was once again of its time.

Place d'Armes in 195?
Advertisement for the Ministry of Mines in a Hydro-Québec window with Notre-Dame Basilica, Montréal / Paul Girard - [195?]
Call no.: E6,S7,SS1,D217204
Source: BAnQ, Fonds ministère de la Culture et des Communications
Comment: Note the mineral architectural treatment of the Place.

Place d'Armes in 2007
Place d’Armes, summer 2007
Source: Mario Brodeur
Comment: The Place is regularly frequented by tourists.

Place d’Armes is today one of the main tourist access points to Old Montréal, welcoming close to five million visitors yearly, chiefly during the summer months. (TISCHER, p. 3) It should be noted, however, that the majority are attracted by the Notre-Dame Basilica, rather than the Place itself. This is borne out by statistics: a survey conducted in 2004 showed that 74% of visitors could spontaneously recall the basilica, compared to 4% for Place d’Armes. Place Jacques-Cartier obtained a 45% score. (LÉGER MARKETING, p. 14).

A revealing study on the use of Place d’Armes and the behaviour of various types of users was recently conducted by the Laboratoire de création et de recherche en architecture de paysage (laboratory for landscape architecture creation and research) of the Université de Montréal School of Landscape Architecture. It established a profile of existing activities in the Place and confirmed that it is mostly frequented by tourists and workers.

The researchers also observed two main traffic patterns in the Place, which vary according to time of day and time of year: first, traffic around the periphery, which is explained by the limited access points to the Place (somewhat similar to the Victorian square), and transverse traffic, generated by items of interest such as the monument, florist kiosk and benches. Most users arrive from the north, walking up Côte de la Place-d’Armes on their way to the basilica or eastward along Notre-Dame St.

As well, continuous computer-assisted observation from September 15 to December 23, 2006, confirmed that the Place is a “location of affluence and concentration for tourists in our early period of [information] collection [and] seems to lose its assets and charm in winter, becoming a transitional site […]. In addition, the entire Place is occupied, and its constitutive elements are items of interest during visits, rest stops by tourists, or simply as part of the space experienced daily by people working nearby.” (TISCHER, p. 66).

The research also identified some conflicts and constraints that adversely affect the relationship between the Place and the major buildings surrounding it. These result either from the current layout of the Place or the use of the roadways surrounding it. For example, the relationship with the National Bank of Canada building is interrupted by the coach parking area and planter box. There is a similar discontinuity with the Bank of Montréal buildings due to the high-speed traffic along Saint-Jacques St. and a taxi stand. Researchers also considered that the loading zone for horse-drawn carriages on Notre-Dame St. degrades the relationship with the parvis of the Notre-Dame Basilica.

Place d'Armes in 2007
Panoramic view of the Place from in front of the National Bank of Canada building.
Source: © Denis Tremblay
Comment: The planter box constituting an obstacle in front of the National Bank of Canada building.

Lastly, since it is important to maintain the Place’s role as the key site for tourists arriving in and departing from Old Montréal, the idea of re-using the underground washrooms, which still exist, has been proposed. They could either be used for their original purpose, or redeveloped as a tourism-service-specific space, e.g., an information counter, or point of sale for refreshments or flowers. If this scenario is retained, universal access to these spaces will also have to be considered.

Place d'Armes in 2007
The florist and refreshments stand in daytime.
Source: Mario Brodeur
Place d'Armes in 2007
The florist and refreshments stand outside operating hours.
Source: Mario Brodeur

Mario Brodeur, architect


For more information
Question for the public:

What degree of importance to you ascribe to re-opening the underground washrooms or converting that space to tourism purposes?

Answers from the public:

What degree of importance to you ascribe to re-opening the underground washrooms or converting that space to tourism purposes?

Un espace de santé public sera sûrement apprécié par les touristes et utilisateurs de la place. De plus un centre d’information faciliterait l’accès à l’offre de services du Vieux-Montréal.
Louis Wiriot

Si les vespasiennes sont restaurées avec le look du 19ième siècle, il serait sûrement très utile de faire renaître un service très apprécié des touristes.
René Houde, guide touristique

Il y a sûrement un intérêt à remettre en fonction les vespasiennes surtout pour les touristes mais notre inquiétude est au sujet d'un lieu qui peut servir de refuge aux itinérants. Serait-il possible d'y mettre un local pour le service de police du quartier? Il y a déjà un bureau d'informations touristiques Place Jacques-Cartier, pas nécessaire d'en ajouter un deuxième à 5 minutes de marche.
Carole Leblanc

Je vois de cette proposition un très grand intérêt dans la remise en fonction des vespasiennes. J’ai 23 ans, et donc mon âge m’a empêché de voir cette caractéristique de la place d'Armes, alors je crois qu'il serait intéressant de leur trouver une fonction originale.
Jean-Nicolas Beaulieu

It would be great to have public bathrooms in such a heavily visited tourist area. However, reopening the underground washrooms (which I remember from my childhood) would raise two problems that seem insurmountable.

1) It would be impossible to supervise without a staff person down there, which would be expensive if open for more than limited hours.

2) Providing handicapped access would require an above-ground structure. Though this could be tucked away in a larger park with lots of vegetation, Place d'Armes is so small that even a discreet structure would be inappropriate. (This also means getting rid of the flower kiosk. The place is too small and significant to be cluttered up with such diversions.)

The architecture around the square is so exceptional that this is a place where a less-is-more solution would be most appropriate.

Provide bathrooms in a nearby building or, I hate to say it, but let the people use the bathrooms at McDonalds.
Mark London
Martha's Vineyard, USA

As a newcomer to Montreal from Vancouver I have been very impressed with the quality of public washroom facilities that are available, for example at Marché Jean-Talon and Atwater, and the quay at Vieux-Port. Other Canadian cities are not able to maintain clean, comfortable washrooms with hot water because their citizens destroy them; Montreal does not seem to have that problem. Restoring the use of the washrooms would be a way of celebrating that element of Montreal's relative civility and of course would be useful to the public using the place. It makes more sense to me to use spaces on the surface for any tourism purposes required.
Bill Buholzer

I would think that if the washrooms were reopened it would have to be in conjunction with the creation of adjacent underground tourist information space. Otherwise the washrooms could be underutilized, and become intimidating to those who feel uncomfortable where there is little nearby foot traffic. Moreover, placing tourist information space underground would minimize tourist clutter above ground where it could detract from the sense of authenticity that is such an attraction of the Old City.
Christopher Carlisle
Massachusetts, USA and Old Montreal

Je trouve que les vespasiennes ont un intérêt historique et pratique - il y a très peu de toilettes publiques à Montréal, et on en a besoin. Je crois aussi que ces vieilles installations ont un certain "cachet". Si elles étaient payantes (et peut-être gérées par une compagnie privée - la Ville ne sera pas capable de les entretenir...) Elles seraient propres, sécuritaires et pratiques.
Iain Blair

Dans la perspective de ma réponse à la question 1, les vespasiennes n'ont pas leur place ici. Ceci dit, c'est un équipement qui manque totalement à Montréal.
Yves Deschamps

En tant que guide touristique de Montréal, je précise que le manque d'installation sanitaire dans ce secteur est un problème majeur et inconcevable pour un site aussi achalandé par les touristes du monde entier. Réaménager les vespasiennes serait une excellente idée car elle représente une période importante des grands travaux publics de la ville organisés par le maire Camilien Houde en réponse aux pertes d'emplois massive causée par le Crash de 1929. De la même époque, on retrouve les vespasiennes du Parc Lafontaine, la salle Calixa-Lavallée, les piscines de l'île Ste-Hélène, le chalet du Mont-Royal entre autres. Surtout, ne pas masquer la place avec des bâtiments sanitaires modernes. Tant qu'au comptoir touristique, il serait plus pertinent sur la place, facilement visible pour les touristes. Le placer devant la tour moderne de la Banque National serait très judicieux.
Michel Jutras, guide de Montréal

La remise en service des vespasiennes peut être intéressant mais ce qui doit être bien réfléchi c'est l'accès à ces vespasiennes. Je ne crois pas qu'elles devraient être accessible à partir de percées dans le sol de la place. Ni aucunes autres fonctions de services utiles ne devraient venir entraver l'espace.

Une utilisation plus conviviale des immeubles de pourtour pourrait répondre à tous les besoins de services fonctionnels. La place devrait être aussi sacrée que possible. Pas dans le sens religieux mais bien plutôt comme grand lieu inspirant de Montréal.
Jules Bélanger

Ce serait intéressant de recréer ces espaces pour deux raisons. D'abord, j'aime bien l'idée de revenir à une structure d'une autre époque, même dans un aménagement plus moderne du site. Cette idée devient possible notamment si la notion de niveler le site au niveau de la rue est retenue... et elle devrait l'être. Ensuite, le kiosque existant pourrait y être "enfoui", question de le garder mais pas du tout en surface. Et finalement, il y a tout simplement l'utilité d'une telle installation pour les visiteurs.
J. Hébert

Sans doute, les vespasiennes auraient un certain intérêt touristique mais je crains fort qu'elles deviennent un autre repère pour nos quêteux comme le passage souterrain qui relie la station de métro Champs de Mars à l'Hôtel de Ville.
Huguette Gagnon

Pas de vespasiennes et réutilisation de l'espace....Il n'y a pas assez de zones piétonnes à Montréal par rapport à l'Europe alors qu'il y a BEAUCOUP plus de place ici.....
SVP donnez tout l'espace aux piétons...
Yves Girard

Bravo pour le retour des vespasiennes! Et autant que possible dans le style original. Et il n'y a aucune objection à ce qu'elles soient payantes. Mieux vaut payantes que délabrées ou malpropres... ou d'entendre les récriminations de quelques-uns à l'effet que cela coûte cher en taxes.
Michel Hudon

Je crois que c'est une très bonne idée. Pour ma part, je vous soumets une idée que j'ai eue. Je pense qu'un abri souterrain pour les sans-abri serait nécessaire avec des douches et des toilettes auto-nettoyantes comme à Paris. Pensons donc au moins fortunés. Essayez donc chers concepteurs d'innover et d'avoir une idée qui ferait le tour du monde.
Raymond Lalonde

To make the centre of Place d'Armes accessible to the handicapped, the steps at the four corners should be removed and replaced by ramps. This would also mean snow clearing would be possible in winter.

We should also try to find a way of covering the fountain in the winter which is aesthetically pleasing. Today (Oct 31), it is covered with ugly and scruffy pieces of wood. By the way, the fountain could be cleaned out more frequently in summer too.

Basically I like Place d'Armes as it is and see no reason to change it. However I would like to mention that in winter, it is often bitterly cold and windy. I walk across it several times every day and I hug the buildings at the sides to get some protection. The (very nice) suggestion to have sidewalk cafes year round would never work!
Fiona Malins
Resident of Old Montreal (close to Place d'Armes)


CHOKO, Marc H., The Major Squares of Montréal. Trans. Kathe Roth, Montréal: Meridian Press, 1990.

DUFRESNE, Sylvie, “Fête et société: le carnaval d’hiver à Montréal (1883-1889).” Essay in Montréal: Activités, habitants, quartiers. Société historique de Montréal. Montréal: Fides, 1984.

LAFONTAINE, Luce, Place d’Armes, Montréal: Évolution urbanistique et architecturale. Survey conducted for the Société de développement de Montréal. Montréal, March 2007.

LÉGER MARKETING, Sondage auprès des clientèles pour le Vieux-Montréal et analyses comparatives avec une étude réalisée en 1998. Survey conducted for the Société de développement de Montréal. Montréal, 2004.

PRESSMAN, Norman, “The Idea of Winterness: Embracing Ice and Snow.” Essay in Sense of the City: An Alternate Approach to Urbanism, under the direction of Mirko Zardini. Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture & Lars Müller Publishers, 2005.

TISCHER, Stefan et al. Place d’Armes: Étude sur la circulation des piétons. Laboratoire de création en architecture de paysage, École d’architecture de paysage, Faculté de l’aménagement, Université de Montréal. Study conducted for the City of Montréal. Montréal, June 2007.