120 years of history
Built between 1891 and 1893, the Monument-National is the oldest theater still in use today in Quebec.
The Monument-National in Montréal
Officially opened on 24 June 1893 by the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal (the present-day St-Jean-Baptiste Society), the Monument-National was situated at the historical interface between the Francophone neighbourhoods (to the east) and the Anglophone areas (to the west). With its daring architecture and imposing dimensions, the Monument-National was the first “monument,” as such, to celebrate the glory of the French-Canadian “nation” and this is why it was called the “National Monument.”
A Colossal Project
The Monument-National was not only one of the biggest buildings in Montreal at the time, it was also the first whose frame was entirely in steel. The structure set itself apart from all the other big Victorian-style buildings of the time because of its Neo-Renaissance façade.
The Monument-National was part of a vast, never-completed project to build a national boulevard in Montreal, similar to the Champs Élysées in Paris. The boulevard was intended to link St-Denis Street to St-Laurent Boulevard. The landmark structures at each end of this boulevard were to have been the Monument-National and the “Opéra National,” an edifice that was, in the end, never built.
The Monument’s “Open Arms”
Built in the heart of what was in the process of becoming the Jewish district of Montreal, the Monument-National soon established itself as a hotbed of creativity, innovation, debate and performance that made it one of the most important multi-ethnic community and cultural centres in America. Apart from the huge auditorium on the first floor where the top celebrities of the late 19th century performed, the Monument-National contained a burlesque theatre called the Starland on the ground floor and a wax museum called the Eden in the basement.
The Monument-National and the Women’s Movement
Francophone Quebec feminism was born at the Monument-National in the late 19th century. Grouped around Marie Gérin-Lajoie within a committee called the “Dames patronnesses de l’Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste,” the most prominent Francophone women in Montreal at the time undertook a massive, vigorous campaign to promote French-Canadian women in all sections of the country’s social, cultural, economic, and political life.
The Monument-National was also the birthplace of the long struggle to establish women’s right to vote in Quebec.
New Ideas and a Multiethnic Cultural Centre
For almost sixty years, the Monument-National served as an important centre of continuing education. Started in 1895, the “cours publics du Monument” trained tens of thousands of people in engineering, law, accounting, hygiene, physics, the arts, history, and literature. Later key institutions like the École polytechnique, the École des Hautes Études Commerciales, the École des beaux-arts and the Conservatoire d’art dramatique, all had their origins in the Monument-National.
On stage at the Monument: Innovation and Avant-garde
From 1896 on, the biggest Anglophone stars of North American theatre appeared on stage at the Monument-National, as did the top personalities on the operatic and international music scene. The Monument-National also played a key role in the development of Francophone theatre in Québec.
In addition, the Monument-National was also a remarkable centre of artistic innovation and experimentation. Starting in the early 1920s, modern theatre began to be seen in Montréal through the shows performed on the Monument’s main stage.
A Jewish Cultural and Artistic Centre
Built around the time that the first big wave of Jewish immigrants settled in Montréal, the Monument-National, once completed, found itself right in the middle of the Jewish district. Thus, in a very natural way and with the support of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste, it became a grandiose Jewish community centre that was periodically used as a synagogue, while the general public and French-Canadian artists continued to come to activities in the building just as they had before. In 1896, the Monument began to put on the first Yiddish (Jewish) shows from New York and for virtually the next 60 years, served as the most important venue for Yiddish theatre in America outside New York; in 1919, the Monument hosted the first meeting of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
Eclecticism and Popular Success
From 1898 to the late 1940s, the shows on the Monument-National’s two main stages (the main auditorium and the Starland) attracted millions of spectators from Montreal and the surrounding area. Acts or groups like Les Veillées du Bon Vieux Temps (1923-1943), the Canadian Operetta Society (1921-1933), Lionel Daunais and Charles Goulet’s famous Variétés lyriques (1937-1955), Gratien Gélinas Les Fridolinades (1938-1946), and Pierre Dagenais’s astonishing Équipe (1942-1947), shared the Monument’s main stage with big stars like Edith Piaf and Charles Trénet.
The Long Slide Downhill
After the Second World War, the Monument-National went into a long downward spiral. The St-Laurent Boulevard – or “the Main,” – as it was known, developed a bad reputation. Prostitution, gambling and trafficking of all kinds repelled the Monument’s regulars, who then opted for the large, safer, more comfortable and more modern locales on Ste-Catherine Street.
The post-war era was also difficult for the St-Jean Baptiste Society, which moved out in 1976. Destined for apparently ineluctable demolition, the Monument-National sank into oblivion.
Renaissance: Rebirth and Centenary
After miraculously avoiding the wrecking ball on a number of occasions, the Monument-National was officially designated as a valuable cultural property in 1976. However, it was not until the three years from 1991 to 1993 that the building was finally restored, thanks to the heroic efforts of its new owner, the National Theatre School of Canada.
A hundred years, day for day, after its official opening, the Monument-National underwent a remarkable renaissance on 24 June 1993. It now stands as the oldest operating theatre in Quebec and its stages, to which the “Balustrade” – a cabaret theatre - was added in 1999, are once again among the most prestigious and dynamic in the country.