Preserving Westmount’s 273-Year-Old Hurtubise House

By Robert J. Galbraith for the Montreal Gazette 11/08/10

One of the Island of Montreal’s few remaining and finest examples of early 18th century; French-Canadian style architecture, is being painstakingly preserved as a teaching beacon for those studying or interested in advancing their knowledge in early French vernacular architecture and its preservation.

RJG12-0501-Hurtubise-03The original Hurtubise ancestral home, built in 1739, has stood on Côte St-Antoine Road at the corner of Victoria Avenue in Westmount, for 273 years. According to the original contract, it took 4 stone masons 15 days to build the large, three-storey, fieldstone farmhouse. The home has three-foot-thick walls on the main floor and an attic and basement where grain and root vegetables were once stored.

But the house was nearly demolished and the property torn-up to make way for a new housing project in 1955. At that time, the last of the Hurtubise family members to live in the home and the 6th generation to do so, Dr. Leopold Hurtubise, passed away. After his death, his heirs were offered a deal to sell the house and land to a local developer, who planned to demolish the old home to make way for the construction of modern homes.

“Upon hearing about the possible sale, local historian, Alice Lighthall began the battle to save one of the oldest homes on the island,” explained Doreen Lindsay, president of the Westmount Historical Association. Lighthall contested the development plan, hoping that the City of Westmount would buy the property. After this strategy fell through, she organized a public meeting to draw attention to the situation with the property. Westmounters, Colin Molson, his sister Mabel and their friend James R. Beattie read about her plea to save the home.

This meeting resulted in their decision to buy the property together. They purchased it outright in 1956, and then transferred its ownership to their newly-formed heritage protection association, ‘Canadian Heritage of Quebec’ (CHQ) in 1961.

“At the time, the Molsons were already aware of heritage buildings and their protection. They examined heritage preservation when they travelled to different parts of the world, especially in England. So they brought this philosophy back from their travels, using it as a guideline to preserving and saving the Hurtubise House,” explained Jacques Archambault, director-general of the CHQ.

Archambault commented that no one has lived in the home since Dr. Hurtubise death in 1955, and it has remained pretty much in the same condition as it was then, helping make it such an exceptional candidate for preservation. “This along with the fact that from 1739-1955 the same family lived in this house also explains why there has been little modification of the interior or exterior. If it had changed hands a number of times, this might not have been the case. This structure has integrity and authenticity, and in the heritage field, this is most important to structure preservation,” he said.
“In 2005 we (CHQ) undertook Phase I of preservation; the process of renovating the leaky roof to prevent further deterioration that threatened the integrity of the building, and at the same time we needed some restoration work done on the interior of the second floor,” he said. “This summer we finished Phase II. That involved some work on the exterior stone facade, the gallery and some work on the interior.”

He says that while it’s an expensive process, everything has been done according to strict preservation rules, which means the home is being “preserved” as opposed to “restored” to its original condition. An example of this is that cracks in the walls were filled, but there was no finishing plaster put over the crack to blend it with wall, nor were they painted over. The filled cracks remain as they are, like timelines on a face. The interior walls were only wiped with a clean rag to remove decades of dust. Literally, everything remains as it was. The only modern addition to the home is a new dehumidifier and ducts added to the basement to protect the home from fluctuating humidity and the second floor kitchen was upgraded.

RJG12-1108-Hurtubise-06This is what makes this maison québécoise so magical. It is history in the rough; a time capsule in extraordinary condition along with a well-documented lineage of successive occupation. This strategy of keeping the structure in situ is a bold new thought process in Canadian heritage preservation.

In recognition of its unique heritage value, in 2004 the former Hurtubise family property and home were declared an historic site and monument by the Ministere de la culture et des Communications du Quebec. Jokingly, Archambault explained that now, “We can’t even plant a tulip bulb in the yard or hammer a nail in the house without first getting a permit.”

According to heritage research conducted by L. Robichaud and A. Stewart, the Sulpician Seigneurs of the island of Montreal granted land on the Côte in 1699 to Louis Hurtubise, in exchange for his land located near their Sulpician mountain mission, (on Sherbrooke Street West near Fort Street) for the land here.

Marin Hurtubise, the family patriarch and father of Louis, arrived at Ville Marie (as Old Montreal was originally called) in 1653 with the governor of New France, Paul Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve. He was one of 103 new settlers that were recruited from France by de Maisonneuve to increase the population of Ville Marie and defend it from Iroquois attack. The addition of these 103 people boosted the population of the colony from 50 residents to just over 150. Also on board the same ship was Marguerite Bourgeoys, who founded the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal. Hurtubise was granted land in Ville Marie by de Maisonneuve as a reward for his good military service in the militia.

According to a survey conducted in 1731, it indicates that there was a stable, barn and wooden home standing on the site of the present Hurtubise House at 561-563 Côte St. Antoine Road, (Côte translates as “a neighborhood” in English) but these were believed gone by 1739 when habitant, Jean Hurtubise had the fieldstone house built. Over the decades, new homes and mansions have sprouted up around the Hurtubise House, leaving it as an island into the past, as the city grew up around it.

RJG12-1108-Hurtubise-14Part of the contract for constructing the house was that the owner provide the builder with scaffolding, the necessary fieldstone for the structure, as well as the sand and burnt lime used for making mortar. The exterior was originally covered in crépi, a type of stucco. This covering was removed by the Hurtubises’ sometime after 1911, exposing the fieldstone exterior. (The entire population of Montreal at the time the Hurtubise home went up in 1739 was 4,200 souls; today that number has swollen to 1.9 million).

In the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, the area of Côte St-Antoine (present-day Westmount) was considered an extremely dangerous place to live, miles away from Ville Marie. Most of the early settlers lived in close proximity to Ville Marie and called the Hurtubise farm and surrounding Côte, “La haute folie, (loosely translated into English as “height of madness). But for those willing to take the chance scratching out a living on the south-facing slopes of the little mountain, they found the land extremely fertile and excellent for growing apples and melons, as well as grain crops.

This bounty of crops and other cash-earning enterprises made the Hurtubise family a fairly well-off family for the times. The exceptionally large size of the home and its fine quality would attest to that. Because of this prosperity, a red brick addition or annex was built onto the east end of the home in the 1870’s, to house the extended family. A large gallery and bell cast eaves were also added. But the old brick bread oven that was built inside the main fireplace and projected out from the east wall of the old house, was filled-in with bricks when the annex was built. A section of the oven is still visible in the fireplace wall.

Archambault explained that the CHQ is a non-profit organization which for the last 50 years, has relied solely on funding from supporters, foundations and sometimes government grants for specific restoration projects. “We are only two part-time preservationists largely responsible for sustaining approximately 20 heritage buildings and natural sites in the province of Quebec, including the Hurtubise House. We need partnerships with different universities, non-profit organizations, volunteers and researchers,” he explained.

RJG12-1108-Hurtubise-12“The provincial government provides some funding but that usually makes-up for only 30-40% of the total cost needed to go ahead with a particular preservation project. So we have to find this extra funding. This is why it takes so long to get anything done, and we also want a professional approach,” he explained. “This is a heritage, educational opportunity and we need help to expose the pages of our past. Here you can go back in time just walking from room to room or floor to floor.”

Suzanne Hurtubise, the great-grand-niece of Dr. Leopold Hurtubise remembers visiting her moms’ great aunts and uncles as a young girl. “We lived 3 blocks away on Northcliffe and my mom and I would visit our family and the old home almost daily. I would play outside in the back near the old well. When I came inside I would always go right to the cupcakes and pies that always seemed to be there in the pantry,” she reminisced.

“My great-uncle was Dr Hurtubise. I will always remember my uncle ducking his head down as he passed through the homes’ small doorways when moving from room to room. He was such a distinguished gentleman.”

For more information or to set up an appointment to visit the home, contact Jacques Archambault of the CHQ at jarchambault@hcq-chq.org or www.hcq-chq.org. Doreen Lindsay of the Westmount Historical Association can be reached at; info@westmounthistorical.org or 514-932-6688.