10 Things You Never Knew About Montreal's Parc La Fontaine
The secret history of Montreal's premiere park.
Often cited as the best park in all of Montreal (by me, sorry Mount Royal and Laurier), Parc La Fontaine is more than just a scenic respite from the urban expanse that is Montreal.
Not simply pretty, Parc La Fontaine has a history interesting as the park is aesthetically pleasing, and its time more people know about it. And so, with that in mind, I bring you 10 things you never knew about Montreal's Parc La Fontaine.
Read on below.
Parc La Fontaine Was Originally Called "Logan Park"
Originally, the land now known as Parc La Fontaine was a farm, or more specifically, "Logan Farm." In 1845, the expanse was sold to Canada's government, who then used it as a grounds to train military personnel.
Just under thirty years later, in 1874, the City of Montreal rented out a chunk of Logan farm to create a new park, which was named "Logan Park." The urban green space we all know as Parc La Fontaine wouldn't be known as such until 1901, when it was officially renamed on Saint-Jean-Babptiste Day.
The Parc Isn't Named After The Fountain
Honestly, this one took me by surprise. I mean, there's a big fountain at the centre of the park, so that must be where the name comes from, right? If you thought the same, then we're all wrong.
Parc La Fontaine is actually named in the honour of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, the first Canadian to become Prime Minister of the United Province of Canada, as the nation was known back in the 1840s. Lafontaine is known as the "father of responsible Government in Canada" and was cited as such during the inauguration ceremony of the monument erected in his honour within the park in 1930.
Who Originally Brought The Fountain To The Park
On the topic of the iconic fountain of the park, it's worth mentioning who actually got the thing built, as most of you probably don't know. At least I assume, because I sure didn't.
Installed in the park's northern basin in October of 1929, the illuminated fountain was proposed by Léon Trépanier, a journalist and member of the Montreal's city council. The fountain was commissioned by the Westinghouse Electric Company.
Some of Trépanier's other notable proposals include the illuminated cross on Mount Royal and the annual Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day parade.
All Of Montreal's Flowers Used To Be Grown At La Fontaine
Around 1889, Parc La Fontaine got a major makeover, as the City of Montreal began its redevelopment of the area, along with the city's other major parks, specifically Mount Royal and St. Helen's Island.
In Parc La Fontaine, one notable development was the installment of the greenhouses that used to be situated in Viger Square. Kept in Parc La Fontaine 'til 1952, the greenhouses were used to grow the many flowers that adorned parts of Montreal, such as public squares.
Parc La Fontaine Used To Have Its Own Zoo
Known as the "Garden of Wonders/Jardin des merveilles" Parc La Fontaine's now-defunct zoo was opened on July 5th, 1957. Primarily geared towards children, the urban zoo had an average daily attendance of 2,836 visitors, with a monthly average 85,080 per month, at least in the 1960s. Some of the animals on display at the zoo included baby seals, young moose, new-born deer, and sea lions.
Despite the Garden of Wonders popularity in the 60s, however, the zoo would be closed in 1989. But we may see the zoo (or something similar) return to Parc La Fontaine, as ongoing meetings have been held to discuss ways in which the park can create new developments linked to the lasting legacy of the Garden of Wonders.
And Its Own "Midgets' Palace"
Yes, to be politically correct that subtitle should read "Little Person's Palace," but that would be anachronistic, because that's what the Parc La Fontaine tourist attraction was called when it opened in 1913 and onwards.
Technically, the "Midgets' Palace" was adjacent to Parc La Fontaine, located on Rachel street, but it was originally supposed to be built in the park's east-end quarter.
The City of Montreal wouldn't allow the construction of a miniature house in the park, and so Philippe and Rose Nicol, the owners and operators of the "Midgets' Palace" had to set up their tourist attraction at 961 Rachel St, right by where La Banquise now stands.
Married in 1906, Philippe and Rose Nicol came to Montreal in 1912, seeking to fulfill Philippe's lifelong goal, to build his "dream home" that would be built specifically for the needs of someone 3 feet in height.
Putting his previous experience as a circus performer to good use, Philippe then invited Montrealers and tourists into his home, enticing them with adverts like “see how the midgets live” and “be a giant for a day.” When giving tours, the Philippe and Rose went by Count and Countess Nicol, describing themselves as "the world’s smallest couple" and "the richest of all the dwarfs."
The "Midgets' Palace" was quite a popular attraction for a number of years, even well after the death of Philippe Nicol, who passed away in 1940. The house was eventually purchased by a third party in 1972 who then kept the "palace" open for tours until the 1980s.
Parc La Fontaine Was Almost A Military Academy
Way back in 1907, Parc La Fontaine wasn't technically the City of Montreal's property. Neither was St. Helen's Island. And it was during that time that the idea was floated around that the eastern section of Parc La Fontaine should be made into a military school.
The whole thing almost happened, too, until a deal went through wherein both Parc La Fontaine and St. Helen's Island was made the official property of Montreal. In total, the City of Montreal paid $200,000 for the land, which would be well over $4 million today.
A Real-Life Princess Visited The Park
The children of Montreal were treated to an extra special royal guest on August 6th of 1958, as Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon made a visit to Parc La Fontaine. Queen Elizabeth II's only sister came to the park specifically as a treat to Montreal's youth, and the real-life princess was greeted with many attendees who were treated to quite a grand spectacle as Princess Margaret travelled through Parc La Fontaine like a mini-parade.
It Used To Be A Hotbed For Male Prostitution & Youth-Gangs
Deemed too dangerous for some residents to walk through, the City of Montreal launched a "foot patrol" in Parc La Fontaine in the summer of 1983. In the span of two months, the patrol apprehended 767 individuals for “offences ranging from homosexual prostitution to robbery and gambling.” Of the total, 553 were taken in for questioning with the remaining 214 arrested and detained.
Youth gangs were also a major problem, as groups of kids aged nine to ten had begun stealing bikes from other children.
While there were a variety of offences committed by Montrealers in the park, the leader of the day-to-night foot patrol squad, Claude Rochon, deemed the "gangs of youth and the homosexual prostitutes who had taken over parts of the park” as the biggest problem.
What The Giant Slingshot Is There For
When walking through Parc La Fontaine and appreciating all of the monuments, it's pretty easy to see who all the statues are built for (there are plaques, after all) but one artwork is a little bit more mysterious: the giant slingshot near Papineau that popped up in the last few years.
Created in 2014, the artwork was commissioned by the borough of Plateau-Mont-Royal as a means to revitalize a dead tree in the park. Artists Melsa Montagne and Nicolas Des Ormeaux took on the project, building a giant slingshot out of the dead poplar tree as a symbol of the bountiful wealth nature provides humanity. It's also something of a standing ode to Canadian filmmaker Frédéric Back, who won an Oscar for his film The Man Who Planted Trees , based on the book of the same name.
But the giant slingshot won't be in Parc La Fontaine forever. Since it's made out of organic materials, the monument will eventually decompose. Both artists predict that the tree from which the artwork was made will likely become unstable in about ten years.