Le Nordelec: Montreal Architectural History
There was something particularly intriguing about this old building that demanded it be researched. Above the Northern and Eastern entry doors holds an architectural piece of the building’s history: the words “Northern Electric Company Limited” are carved into the cement entry arches (figure 1). These arches gave me the first clue as to the original purpose of the building. Once you are done admiring the stunning entry points, you are presented with this perfectly symmetrical, industrial building that stands high at the intersections of Richardson, Shearer, St-Patrick and de la Sucrerie.
As of 1975 (1), the building has been known as “Le Nordelec:” A francophoney spin on the original name of the building The Northern Electric: "Nord" being North in the French language and "elec" short for electric. The building has multiple addresses, due to its size and division, however, for the purpose of this research paper, the main address of the building is 1751 Richardson street (2). ELAD Canada, the current owner of the building manages the leasing of the residential and commercial spaces under the subsidiary name “Condo Nordelec (3).” It is unclear when ELAD assumed ownership of Nordelec, however, it was recorded that the building was purchased in 1975 by Nordelec Industrial Plaza (4). Before Nordelec purchased the building, it was owned by the Northern Electric Company (City of Montreal public database).
The Nordelec was originally an industrial building, which used over seven million bricks, has a foundation of reinforced concrete, a steel superstructure and finished with terracotta decorations on the facades (5). The height and width is unfortunately undocumented on most architectural archives, however, the building is comprised of five wings (of varying lengths), which are connected by reinforced steel bridges (see figure 2). According to archives, it follows no distinct architectural period style, however, as Marsan points out in Chapter 9 of his book Montreal in Evolution, “the remedy suggested by architects and builders seems to have been the use of imposing cornices (6).” In figure 3, you can see Marsan’s comment come alive as the architect used ornaments and cornices to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the industrial building. An interesting aspect to point out is the fact that a portion of the building is currently being redeveloped, however the developers are attempting to conserve parts of the facade. Marsan writes about this in the introduction of chapter 9, “as soon as the latter was outlived, they would be torn down to make room for better, economically adapted buildings (7).” Nordelec is a unique example of a building that is at the crossroads of both modern and historic, with some portions being preserved and distinctive, while other portions are being assimilated to modern architectural trends (figure 4).
The land where Nordelec was built was once the property of a woodworker and entrepreneur by the name of James Shearer (hence Shearer street). Shearer was a pioneer and innovator in many aspects of Montreal and Canadian carpentry and wood-made technological history (8). According to the Lovell’s directory, the lot was owned by Shearer right-up until 1914 (figure 5), where it was then purchased by the Northern Electric Company (figure 6). The Northern Electric Company was a subsidiary of Bell Canada and manufactured the cables and wiring for the telephone company, as well as other technological components (9). The construction of the building began in 1913, however, it underwent several phases of additions and alterations between 1913 and 1948 (10). The first phase of construction was completed in 1914 and was designed by Bell Canada’s architect and superintendent William John Carmichael (11). According to research, during his time at Bell, Carmichael designed over 100 structures for the telephone company, each echoing his unique style: “Although essentially industrial in character, his designs for exchange buildings were enlivened by the introduction of classical ornament and highly mannered and dressed appearance to the facades (12).”
While searching for the address on Google Maps, I took note of how immensely beneficial this building must have been for a cable and wire manufacturing facility as it is right beside both the Lachine canal locks and the railway. Also, this helped me better understand why there is a basin right in the middle of where the building now stands in Goad’s 1881, through to 1912 maps (figures 7 and 8). Shearer’s company specialized in the manufacturing of wood and required transporting goods, more or less, on a daily basis. This basin most likely served to facilitate vessel transportation.
I visited the building on a sunny day, early in the morning, to ensure I could get a clear view of all its details. Once you approach the building, you are intimidated by its height, but you also quickly appreciate its symmetrical beauty juxtaposed with its black window casings and red brick. The building holds an auratic component that demands you stop and appreciate its row-on-row-window-dictated facades. The north-western side of the building is under construction and has also had a major addition added to it. However, the obvious juxtaposition between modern and historical doesn’t serve to compliment Carmichael’s beautiful design, but instead, almost ruins it. It seems, however, that a portion of the original brick facade on this side is being preserved (figure 4).
I began taking photographs at the corner of de la Sucrerie and Richardson streets. I immediately remarked the beautiful terracotta ornaments that decorated the building’s eighth floor. It made me happy to think that Carmichael decided to add decor to this industrial building that traditionally would have had little attention-to-detail added to it. I continued walking down Richardson, from Sucrerie to Shearer, and I had a glimpse of nostalgia as I thought back to how life must have been in the 19th and 20th centuries in this area. It's an almost unexplainable experience to learn about the history of a building, and the area that surrounds it, and then go see it once the research has been done. It was as if I traveled through time and, for a just a moment, I was seeing the building in 1914.
When I entered the building through both of the decorated entrances, it is pleasantly obvious that the architects of the newly designed interior have attempted to pay homage to the building's historical significance. You are forced to walk passed eight steel frame art installations that have been placed in the center of the main hallway of the building’s entrance. On the inside of each installation is a paragraph about the building’s history or cultural heritage (figure 9).
I was lucky enough to have a friend-of-a-friend who owns one of the units in the residential sector of the building and they took me on a tour of the interior. Surprisingly, it seems as though a lot of the original interior of the building has stayed in tact. The new designers have attempted to conserve a lot of the original and distinct red brick, juxtaposed with modern gyproc finishings (figure 10). The original hardwood flooring has also been conserved and maintained on some of the floors.
I’m jealous of the residents who get to live in Nordelec as it is a unique and well kept piece of Montreal’s history. Although I do not agree with the most recent additions added to the building, the architects throughout history who have designed the additions, did an excellent job of conserving the consistency of the structure. Aside from its aesthetic and historic value, the divided building serves an extremely functional space with the first and second floor operating as commercial spaces, with the remaining six floors residential. You are also able to easily maneuver through this building as it is attached by multiple link points.
Nordelec is truly becoming “hipster central” in that it complies with this contemporary culture’s desire to live in a historic space with modern furnishings. Nordelec already has many commercial tenants that are gradually transforming this space and neighbourhood into a vibrant and desirable region to live, despite it being in an industrial sector in the Point-Saint-Charles borough of Montreal. I’m sure it would give Carmichael great peace to know that his building has found a new function and has not become the subject of demolition.
RESEARCH AND REFERENCES:
1. Information provided by a research study by the Directory of Québec's Cultural Heritage
2. The cadastral number for the building is 5256747, obtained by the city of Montreal’s website. https://servicesenligne2.ville.montreal.qc.ca/sel/evalweb/index
3. Company website: https://www.eladcanada.com/portfolio/residential/nordelec
4. Information provided by a research study by the Directory of Québec's Cultural Heritage
5. Industrial Architecture of Montreal, McGill University http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/industrial/showbuilding.php?id=IN136
6. (Marsan, J-C.1981. pp. 235)
7. (Marsan, J-C. 1981. pp. 228)
8. (McNally, L 1994)
9. Information provided by a research study by the Directory of Québec's Cultural Heritage
10. Information provided by a research study by the Directory of Québec's Cultural Heritage
11. Biographical dictionary of architects in Canada, http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1604
12. Biographical dictionary of architects in Canada, http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1604
Heritage and Museum Institutions Branch of the Ministry of Culture and Communications. “Northern Electric Company Limited.” Culture and Communications Quebec. Last modified 2013. http://www.patrimoine-culturel.gouv.qc.ca/rpcq/detail.do?methode=consulter&id=191121&type=bien#.XIVV71NKhBz
Industrial Architecture of Montreal. "Northern Electric Co." McGill University. Online course database, http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/industrial/showbuilding.php?id=IN136.
Marsan, J-C. Montreal in Evolution. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1981.
McNally, L. "Shearer, James." Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13 (1994) http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/shearer_james_13E.html
Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800 - 1950. "Carmichael, William John". Online database, http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1604