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As both players and onlookers in Montreal's historic role as a North American hub, the historic city centre, the old port and the railway station district form a remarkable group of heritage properties, a result of Montreal's location at the exact breakpoint for shipping on the St. Lawrence River, making it a major gateway to North America. Better yet, because Montreal grew into a metropolis but never a megalopolis, this group of heritage assets is confined to a small area. In short, nowhere else in North America can one find such a well-preserved and highly concentrated continental hub.


Old Montreal, the historic city centre, has always served as a transit point, as the prehistoric, historic and pre-industrial remains show. The industrialization of the city, starting in 1850, and Montreal's heyday as Canada's metropolis, from 1880 to 1930, also left many tangible and eloquent traces: warehouse- showrooms from the 1850s to the 1880s, the Victoria Bridge, port infrastructures and grain elevators, and huge metropolitan railway stations. Finally, in the modern era, the city has not only successfully protected a large number of these witnesses of the past, but also created the last major North American railway terminus of the 20th century, and introduced a whole new type of urban transit system, an underground pedestrian network.

Such a variety of transit facilities could not have been created in a vacuum. Montreal has always enthusiastically exchanged ideas and trends, particularly in architecture and engineering, with other parts of North America and with Europe. Montreal's warehouse-showrooms, for instance, offered an original approach, while in return, American and British innovations were soon imported and put to use in Montreal. Neither can the contribution of Montreal's elevators to the modern architectural movement be overlooked, nor the international example set by its underground pedestrian network. Montreal has long been at the cutting edge of international innovation in terms of port, rail and transit facilities, and has often led the way.

Plan de la ville de Montréal,


As we have just noted, Montreal's role as a North American hub remains visible in its historic city centre. But the attraction of the old town also lies in its exceptional conservation, making it unique among large North American cities. While the 19th-century and early 20th-century buildings are symbols of the importance of Montreal's role as a transit point for goods and people in the past, the historic city centre also reflects the city's role in managing all aspects of the country's development from its main gateway—as evidenced by its early 20th-century financial centre.

Historically, other major North American cities have played similar roles, and sometimes on a much larger scale— New York or Philadelphia, for instance. But in today's Montreal, unlike other metropolises, the modern post-war boom produced few changes in the historic city centre and the old port; instead, the downtown and the port both simply moved, leaving their earlier incarnations in place. The city also managed to conserve four of its five major railway terminuses.


Habitat '67, whose modernity dominates the old port while fitting in seamlessly, is an ideal international example of modern functionalist architecture—the goal of this widely debated project, right from the outset, and one confirmed many times since in numerous international publications. Montreal's underground pedestrian network, which developed more gradually and organically, since it did not start from any unique initial plan, is another remarkable urban planning achievement, and one whose original nucleus, part of a railway project launched back in 1911, also deserves special attention. Finally, a number of imposing buildings are stunning examples of the modern architectural movement of the 1960s.

We must stress once again that such a rare North American group of heritage assets could never have existed but for the city's particular geographic location, and must be seen in terms of that location, the primary cause of Montreal's historic and still very vibrant role as a North American and Atlantic hub.




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March 2003