Montreal’s Original Skyscraper:

The Aldred Building

Historical Place d’Armes is arguably Montreal’s most significant public square as it is surrounded by more than three centuries of architecture. The buildings that border it include the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice (1684), the Church of Notre-Dame (1823), The Bank of Montreal (1848), The New York Life Insurance Building (1888), the National Bank Tower (1960s), and Montreal’s first skyscraper, the Aldred Building of 1931. The construction of the Aldred Building demonstrated several significant events: the shift from classical detailing to a modern style free of historical reference; the beginning of the age of skyscrapers in Montreal; a new type of building structure, the use of new materials, and the introduction of modern services; and the extravagance and economic success of the 1920s. Commencing construction on July 20, 1929, in the prime of the ‘roaring twenties’, it was fortunate that work on the Aldred Building continued despite the historical stock market crash three months later. Upon completion in 1931, the building was described by the Montreal Gazette as "graceful and dignified, one of the most beautiful structures in the city". Presently overwhelmed in height by modern skyscrapers, in its day the Aldred Building was a beacon, towering over Montreal. Although long since surpassed in height, it still remains significant in the Montreal landscape, and it was not until several years later that any other building approached its then impressive 316-foot peak.

The architect of the Aldred Building was Ernest Isbell Barott, of the firm Barott and Blackader. Barott was born March 25, 1884 in Canesta, New York, and studied architecture at Syracuse University. He worked for the New York firm of McKim, Mead and White before coming to Montreal in 1911, setting up practice with Gordon Blackader and Daniel T. Webster the following year. Barott was commissioned by J. E. Aldred, president of the company whose name the building bears to this day, Aldred & Company Limited of New York. The company had several interests including Shawinigan Water and Power Company (a precursor to Hydro Quebec) and the Gillette Safety Razor Company, and required a home for its Canadian division’s offices. J. E. Aldred desired more than a simple office building, envisioning a monumental building that would display the wealth of his company and make a statement to that effect, likely in response to Ralph Walker’s 1926 New York Telephone Company Building. At a completed cost (in 1931) of 2,851,076.00 dollars, one can see that no expense was spared to achieve this goal. Creating a monumental building that would stand out against its historic neighbours, without overwhelming them, was definitely not an easy task to accomplish. Despite being taller than any other building on the square, the Aldred Building fits its location very comfortably. Barott "gave consideration to the old buildings in the square and endeavored to design a modern building which would take its place naturally in the surroundings." The stepping back of the building creates a cathedral-like massing, reflecting the Church of Notre-Dame. Also, the use of limestone, the same material with which many of the other buildings are faced, helps to achieve an architectural harmony amongst the buildings in the square. The set-backs gradually move the building away from the square at the 8th, 13th, and 16th floors, visually reducing the building’s height and preventing it from becoming overwhelming. The Aldred Building also attempts to address both Place d’Armes and rue Notre-Dame which do not meet at a 90-degree angle, and does so quite successfully by aligning with both streets until the third floor, where it then steps back and becomes square to Notre-Dame. The odd angle is small, and Barott resolves the problem so well through his use of vertical lines and set-backs, that the average person would never notice.

In designing the Aldred Building, J. E. Aldred, the president, and E. I. Barott, the architect, were no doubt influenced by Eliel Saarinen’s second place design competition entry of a soaring, stepping tower for the Chicago Tribune, and by William Van Allen’s 77-storey Chrysler Building. In contrast to these precedents, as well as the 102-storey Empire State Building (by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, also completed in 1931) the Aldred Building at only 23 stories seemed rather squat but continues the same strong sense of verticality that is an Art Deco trademark. It is unknown exactly when the Aldred Company approached Barott with the commission as there were absolutely no records kept of communication between architect and client other than for contractual items such as payments and adjustments. Interestingly though, the contract for payment to the architect was dated November 6th, 1929—almost four months after the start of the construction. It is likely that Barott did not commence his work on the Aldred Building until about 1927, as his Bell Canada Building on Beaver Hill was not completed until 1929. Barott’s original design was for a building only 12 storeys tall, and any designs resembling the current Aldred Building would have been developed significantly later, as building heights were limited to 130 feet in Montreal until the passing of a bylaw allowing taller buildings provided they made use of set-backs to reduce their overall mass. The rationalization was that this would allow greater penetration of light and air into the building as well as permit sunlight to reach the streets below. The Montreal bylaw was modeled on a similar bylaw adopted by New York City in 1916 that had already been implemented in several other U.S. cities. Sources differ on the date this bylaw was passed, with many placing it as late as 1929, possibly implemented specifically for the Aldred Building, but it may have been in place as early as 1927. The bylaw remained in place until 1948, and required that above 40 metres, there needed to be a setback of 30 centimetres for every 1.2 metres of height. Also, the height of any building downtown could not exceed more than 2.5 times the width of the street it fronted, and a building’s total floor area could not exceed more than twelve times its base area, not including the set-back floors. Being the first constructed under the new bylaw, the Aldred Building made use of the newly passed rules as much as possible. It is reported in Montréal Métropole that Barott was able to take advantage of a 1929 clause in the bylaw that allowed buildings on public squares to exceed the then maximum height by up to 200 feet provided certain restrictions were adhered to. Interestingly, Barott placed the first set-back significantly lower than was required, in order to differentiate it from the neighbouring New York Life Insurance Building, which can be reached via an indoor passage from the ground floor. The building’s total floor area is 238,946 square feet, exceeding 216,000 square feet (12 times the ground floor area), showing how Barott took advantage of set-backs which were not included under the city’s formula. Rentable area makes up 169,410 square feet of the total, and notably the Aldred Building was one of the first Montreal buildings in which the company constructing it used only a portion of the space and rented the rest to other businesses, in this case mainly legal and financial firms. Office spaces in the building were planned to be quite flexible, to accommodate the ever changing clients and their needs.

The Aldred Building’s height is not the factor that most differentiated it from other buildings in Montreal in 1931. It is the lack of classical references in its detailing showing the shift from historical styles to the modern style of Art Deco that was reaching its peak in Montreal and around the world. Art Deco design began in France, where the style was dominant and most influential, but only in North America did it become a significant architectural style. Art Deco architecture is most clearly defined by its sense of verticality and linearity, giving a sense of reaching towards the sky. Vertical lines ascend the face of any Art Deco building, the Aldred Building not being an exception to this with its stone buttresses thrusting themselves upwards. The verticality is enhanced by the spandrels between the windows (a common element of Art Deco architecture) which are fabricated of aluminum and black glass to differentiate them from the warm Indiana limestone walls. Where the spandrels are of stone, they are carefully articulated to reduce their horizontality. The parallel vertical piers are interrupted only at the set-backs; this does not interfere with the continuity of the composition as the higher level thrusts up as if emerging from behind the lower. The series of vertical lines comfortably reaches the ground via the lower level with its accentuation of horizontal lines, a method commonly used in Art Deco architecture to provide a base for the building. This allows the building to rest comfortably on its site rather than give the impression of simply thrusting up from it. The stepping-back ziggurat form of the Aldred Building is also an Art Deco trademark, but it seems very likely that this resulted from city bylaws of the time that required such massing. Not surprisingly though, buildings possessing this appearance are commonly referred to as being in the romantic image of the New York skyscraper.

If verticality is the first trademark one notices when observing an Art Deco building, then its decoration is certainly the second. Art Deco architecture marks a turning point in architectural history from buildings that were detailed exclusively in classical motifs, to those of the international style, which are devoid of minute detailing. The transition is demonstrated by the stylization and simplification of detailing in Art Deco buildings, where ornamentation is not omitted nor is it forgotten, rather it is broken down into simple geometric forms, and clean, sleek lines which are free of any historical influence. Art Deco buildings tend to respond to their regional context, imitating local flora and fauna in their finish work. "Art Deco decoration attempts to delight the senses. Very low (bas) relief Art Deco motifs, such as stylized flowers or fountains, and geometric, repetitive, machine-inspired patterns...are found flanking doors and windows or forming horizontal bands above them." The Aldred Building possesses several examples of Art Deco ornamentation. The aluminum and black glass spandrels are a futuristic composition of geometric shapes and stylized flowers. On the exterior, above the doors and windows of the ground floor, bas-relief stone panels are intricately carved in designs of leaves and branches of native trees such as maples, pines, and oaks. The carved stonework capping each set-back carries different displays of stylized flowers, leaves, stars, snowflakes, and geometric forms. Inside, the detailing maintains this same theme, using plants, wildlife, and geometric forms. Cast bronze panels over the doors in the Place d’Armes portion of the lobby depict snails, plants, and birds sitting on telegraph wires (or perhaps high-tension electric wires as a reference to J. E. Aldred’s Shawinigan Water and Power Company). In the centre of these panels, as well as throughout the building, is the iconic Art Deco octagon, used extensively as the form of the elevator indicators, wall sconces, and hanging light fixtures. Also characteristic of Art Deco architecture is a rigorous order in its ornament, a carry-over from the classical styles. The finish work around each opening is perfectly symmetrical, as is the design of inlaid white metal carved into the door. Doors are centred in their openings, and wall sconces are centred above. Equal-sized recesses in the marble walls mirror each other across the corridor, occasionally becoming a door which, when no door faces it, is matched on the opposite side by a dark green marble panel. Even the ceiling panels exhibit perfect symmetry, with light fixtures centred in them. The symmetry continues to be demonstrated with the exterior ornament, and is also evident in the windows, perfectly balanced between the giant buttresses that form a symmetrical composition. This creates harmony and stability in the composition, motivating many to see the Aldred Building as a ‘frozen waterfall’, and continues the classical idea of monumentality in architecture.

The Aldred Building shows two other characteristics of its day, both visible in its use of materials. Its lavishness and use of very expensive materials display the wealth of the 1920s, and its steel structure and modern amenities show that technology was truly being embraced by this time. The Aldred Building maintains an Art Deco trait whereby, "traditional materials such as marble, stone, brick, terra-cotta, and glass are combined with new materials such as polished steel, aluminum, Bakelite, and shiny Vitrolite to produce lush textures and colours which evoke a sensory experience." On the exterior, Barott uses Indiana limestone set on a granite base in combination with the aluminum spandrels. The interior doors are inlaid with white metal and like the exterior gates, are bronze. Surrounding the doors and covering the walls and floors of the entrance lobby are a variety of marbles, including Belgian Black, Yellow Sienna, Tinos Greek, St. Genevieve Golden Vein, Verde Antique, and Moutonelle. Flooring above the ground level is made of terrazzo with brass strips. Bronze also makes up the frames for windows of the ground floor bank, and is used in trim throughout the building (such as in radiator covers) along with stainless steel. The steel structure of the building is supported two floors below street level on a solid concrete mat which is nine feet thick. The steel is fireproofed with terra-cotta tiles and supports reinforced concrete floors. The steel structure allows for a total of 840 windows, which cover approximately 20 percent of the building’s surface area. It is the numerous services installed in the Aldred Building that most clearly identify it as a modern structure. These include conditioned ventilation in the basement and first nine floors, which are the levels of largest area, and therefore have the least access to natural light and air. Somewhat traditional radiators heat the building, but fresh air (‘washed’ and filtered in an air-cleaner) is supplied on all floors while stale air is exhausted. Also installed in the Aldred Building is a central vacuum system, an electric time-clock system, an incinerator, a paper baler, and an ozone machine in the kitchen to eliminate odours. All the floors contain built-in ducts for electrical and telephone cables. The six high-speed elevators were the most modern available in the day, and were installed by Otis Fensom at a cost of 194,170 dollars. The cars travel at 700 feet per minute and have teak interiors. Interestingly, many buildings then built did not have such amenities, and it was not until several years later that new buildings began acquiring them.

Modern skyscrapers may be larger, taller, and more efficient, but they remain incomparable to the ambiance held by the skyscrapers of the 1920s and 1930s. Art Deco was mainly an urban style, and the skyscraper became the ultimate manifestation of this style, having been made possible by the relatively recent introduction of the steel frame and curtain wall. The Aldred Building began a new age of architecture in Montreal, and Art Deco skyscrapers across North America were heralding the same movement towards buildings that were taller than ever before. The Aldred Building’s vertical lines create the sense of a soaring building, yet it does not overpower those around it. Combining materials of old and new, ornamented with geometric designs, gives the building its futuristic feeling and appearance, and the wonderful motifs of local plants and animals show respect for the context in which it is placed, something too often forgotten today. The Aldred Building is a showcase of the wealth of the 1920s in its extravagant use of materials, at the same time showing the poverty of the 1930s, when low-cost labour was widely available to work those materials. E. I. Barott died in 1966, not before he was able to see the Aldred Building overwhelmed by the National Bank Tower across the square. Overwhelmed in height and size perhaps, but definitely not in architectural significance and beauty.
 
 

Images of the Aldred Building

(Click on image for a larger view)

    

   

 

  

  
 
 

Bibliography

Cohen-Rose, Sandra. Northern Deco, Corona Publishers, Montreal, 1996.

Pinard, Guy. L’edifice Aldred, La Presse, September 23, 1990, p226.

Gardner, William. The Aldred Building, Montreal, Canadian Architecture Collection, May 2, 1974.

Chung, Lucy. The Aldred Building, Canadian Architecture Collection, 1985.

Wagg, Susan. Ernest Isbell Barott, Architect: An Introduction, Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1985.

Kalman, Harold. A History of Canadian Architecture, vol. 2, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1994.

Hustak, Alan. Time Hasn’t Diminished Aldred Building, Montreal Gazette, July 6, 1991, p54.

Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. The Aldred Building--Montreal, The Journal, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (JRAIC), August, 1931, p294.

Vertical files and archives of E. I. Barott, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. Special thanks to Ms. Megan Spriggs.
 
 
 
 

Colin Szasz, December 11, 2000