Allan Memorial Institute

Architects: Unknown (1863)

The Allan Memorial Institute (AMI), formerly known as Ravenscrag, sits high on the edge of Mount Royal overlooking Montreal’s busy downtown core. Located near the western border of the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH) grounds, the AMI has housed both the Psychiatric Unit of the hospital and the Department of Psychiatry of McGill University since they were established in 1944. Although much of the original Ravenscrag exterior is still recognizable, frequent renovations over the past 72 years have left most of the building’s former glory illegible.
Sir Hugh Allan emigrated from Scotland to Montreal where he established the Allan Line as the largest privately owned shipping company in the world. In 1860 he purchased a 14-acre plot of land on Mount Royal from the estate of Simon McTavish, to build a home that would oversee his empire below. After demolishing the remains of an incomplete mansion he built a most exquisite home for himself, his wife Matilda, and their 12 children. Although the original architects who designed Ravenscrag remain unclear, the extravagant 34-room Italianate villa, which was completed in 1863, was rivaled in both scale and grandeur in Canada only by the 72-room Dundurn Castle (1835) in Hamilton Ontario.

After Sir Allan’s death in 1882 Ravenscrag was passed to by his eldest son Sir Montagu Allan, who with his wife Marguerite continued the well-established tradition of perpetual renovation. Changes and additions include an 1889 extension to the east wing designed by architect Andrew Taylor, modifications to the living room, verandahs, servant’s quarters and stables (1898), and a gated wall surrounding the property (1907). After the death of the last of Sir Montagu Allan’s four children and the lasting effects of the Great Depression, the Allan family had little need for such a grandiose mansion. It was therefore donated to the RVH in 1940 under the condition that no matter what humanitarian cause it served, the building always be named the Allan Memorial.
In March 1943 McGill established an Institute of Psychiatry and the RVH assumed the cost of renovating Ravenscrag for this purpose. By June of that same year members of Montreal scientific elite, including Wilder Penfield, attended the ceremony to appoint Dr. D. Ewen Cameron as the inaugural Director of the Allan Memorial Institute (AMI). Cameron’s first mandate as director was to transform the luxurious mansion into a functional psychiatric institution. For Dr. Cameron this meant subdividing many of the grand rooms and their anti-chambers on the first and second floors. On the main floor alone, the main ballroom, small ballroom, drawing room, dining room, and breakfast room were all subdivided and converted into either treatment rooms or patient’s bedrooms. The large dining room was split into 5 small bedrooms and one utility closet. The architectural firm Lawson and Little completed the renovations in July 1944 and shortly after the AMI celebrated its grand opening and admitted its first patients.

To transform the stately home known as Ravenscrag to the functional AMI Lawson and Little made several structural modifications but focused the majority of their efforts on the interior. Today, the exterior of the original house and stable remains relatively intact while the Italian themed dining room and French style ballroom were gutted or covered over in favour of a more modern and functional style. The Victorian style library, located just north of the front entrance, and the entrance itself are the only interior spaces that remain largely untouched from the Ravenscrag era. In 1953 a 4-storey concrete structure was added on the north side of the AMI and a decade later a tunnel connected the newly constructed Research and Training building, located immediately to the west. Regardless of these modernizations one may still stand at the base of the property on Pine Avenue, or pass through the front doors and easily imagine the majesty that was once Ravenscrag.




allan panorama







written by Victoria Henderson in June 2012