In 1705, Montréal’s new Governor, Claude de Ramezay, decided to build a residence appropriate to his social standing on a hill overlooking the small fortified town. At a time when most buildings were of wood, his imposing stone structure was undoubtedy known as « the Château » from the start, as this was how a Governor’s residence was normally designated. Ramezay took no small pride in his new abode and even wrote King Louis XIV that he had «surely built the most beautiful house in Canada ».
In keeping with private residences of this kind, the property was set on almost 4,000 square metres of land and included a vast garden and orchard.
After de Ramezay’s death in 1724, the Château served a variety of functions. It played host to many important historical figures and bore witness to key events in our history. Initially, Madame de Ramezay rented the Château to Gilles Hocquart, Intendant of New France, as his Montréal residence. When she died in 1742, her heirs sold the building to the Compagnie des Indes, which held the monopoly on the fur trade. It became the head office of the company and the home of its chief agent. In 1756, the company enlarged the Château to the size it is today.
In 1764, merchant William Grant acquired the Château. In 1773, he rented it to the British Government to serve as the Governor’s Residence ; the British purchased it from Grant in 1778.
Discovery of old plans (in french)
The Château Ramezay during the american invasion
When the American Continental Army occupied Montréal from November 1775 to June 1776, the Château was the symbol of power they chose as their headquarters. General Richard Montgomery, Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin all crossed its threshold. Numerous governors and senior British officials followed over the years, until 1849, when Governor-General Lord Elgin was the last to have offices here. That year, rioters set fire to the Parliament of the United Province of Canada, and Montréal lost its status as capital. This event marked the end of an era for the Château, which was then put to other uses. The Courthouse of the District of Montréal occupied the premises until 1855 while a new Courthouse (now known as the Old Courthouse) was being built. The Board of Education of the Government of Quebec, which became the Conseil de l’instruction publique, took over the Château in 1856, headed by Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau; the Ecole Normale Jacques Cartier opened on the premises the following year. Beginning in 1879, the Faculty of Medicine of Laval University in Montréal, followed by the Faculty of Law, in 1882, gave courses there until 1889.
The Court of Magistrates took over the Château from 1889 to 1892 while the nearby Courthouse was being enlarged.
It was at this point that our organization, the Antiquarian and Numismatic Society of Montreal entered the picture. Founded in 1862 by a group of French and English-speaking Montrealers, members of this « learned society » had a common interest in our heritage and devoted themselves to its study, its preservation and its promotion. Typically for this sort of organization, they met to discuss their interests, hold lectures, publish a periodical (The Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatic Journal), establish a collection and organize exhibitions. They even formed a pressure group that recommended intervention to preserve historic sites that were under threat.
In 1892, to mark the 250th anniversary of the founding of Montréal, they undertook the installation of the first plaques commemorating the city’s historic sites and buildings.
A year previously, the Society had set up a committee with a view to preserving the Château Ramezay by transforming it into an historical museum and a library.
Despite their efforts, the Government of Quebec, then owner of the Château, wished to get rid of the old building. In the spring of 1893, it announced the Château would be sold at auction on October 24.
Fearing the government’s indifference would result in the Château Ramezay being demolished and sold to developers, the Antiquarian Society decided to appeal to public opinion. On October 17, they mobilized a crowd of citizens and brought about a special meeting of the City Council on October 23, the night before the auction. A petition signed by 2,000 people was tabled. The Society convinced the City of Montréal to buy the Château, in exchange, they would turn it into a museum and a library. Here is an extract from a speech by Society member George Hague during the meeting, which was quoted by a journalist :
«... the building could be made the repository of those mementos which develop a patriotic spirit in the coming generation that would be of great good to the country as a whole. He hoped that in some way or other the property would be secured, and it would become the center of an historical museum which would be the pride of Montréal»
His words clearly convey the Society’s vision for this project.
The proposal was finally endorsed by the city, which acquired the «old» Château the following day, thus saving this precious building at the very last minute. The Society went ahead with its plans as outlined, and on May 1, 1895, it opened to the public as an historical museum, national portrait gallery and public library. The institution was officially inaugurated with great pomp on April 9, 1896. As La Presse reported next day: « Montréal’s most distinguished citizens gathered last night at the old Château Ramezay. Rarely have we seen a more glittering or splendid event. »
In 1929, the Society acquired the ownership of the Château in exchange for 10,000 books from its library which were given to the City and which, today, are part of the collection of the Grande Bibliothèque. That same year, the Château became the first building the Commission des monuments historiques du Québec classified as an historic monument.
Needless to say, a number of renovations were made to the Château during the 20th century. An extension with a conically-roofed tower was added in 1903; the stucco exterior was removed and the roof was redone in copper in 1954; in 1976, 18th century mahogany panelling was installed in the room known as the Salle « de Nantes »; in 1997, the copper roofing was removed and replaced by a Canadian-style roof of tinned copper (imitation tin); a rear gallery was re-installed in 2012.
In June 2000, the Château’s immediate surroundings were transformed with the inauguration of the Governor’s Garden. This is an example of a typical 18th century urban garden in New France designed to evoke the beauty and utility of a bygone era.
Today, the Society, a non-profit organization, still owns the Château and its collection of over 30,000 objects acquired over the years (See Collections). It oversees the Museum and its members, including one hundred volunteers. The Québec Government has declared the institution a « certified museum/ Musée agréé ». It is the oldest of its kind in the province and one of the oldest in Canada. According to a team of experts in conjunction with UNESCO, it is one of the 1,001 historic sites you must see before you die. Tourism Québec has named it one of 10 « must-see » museums in Québec.
Today, in the heart of Old Montréal, stands an exceptional structure, a testament to our past, brought to life by Montrealers whose joint efforts continue to preserve the spirit of the site and of our community.
Timeline (in french)