The Montreal "Midgets Palace" You Never Knew Existed
Before we delve into this peculiar slice of Montreal history, let me first say that, yes, the term "midget" is offensive and altogether politically incorrect. The use of the term "Midgets Palace" in the title of this article and throughout is not being used for shock value or to "get clicks," it is merely an effort to be historically accurate. To use another term would be anachronistic, as the "Midgets Palace" was named as such by its founders (little people themselves) and is the institution's true title.
Years before La Banquise began slinging poutines, there was another Montreal attraction right at the corner of Rachel and Parc La Fontaine that pulled hordes of tourists and Montrealers alike to its doors.
"Be a giant for a day" rang advertisements for this Montreal peculiarity. "Walk among people of another size" in a veritable "castle," exclaimed posters. "You never saw anything like it."
And the adverts were probably right, because no experience was quite like a visit to Montreal's Midgets Palace, a gone (but not entirely forgotten) tourist attraction that operated in Montreal for close to 80 years.
The story behind the Midgets Palace, otherwise known as Le Palais des Nains, begins with Philippe Adelard Nicol. Born on September 27, 1881 in Lévis, Quebec, Philippe was the seventh son of a seventh son, and the only child in his family to be born with dwarfism.
Never growing taller than three feet tall, Philippe definitely went through hardships being the only child of small stature in a farm family. But he turned his disadvantage into a lucrative opportunity, quitting his parish school at the age of 12 to become a circus performer.
While traveling throughout North America (and beyond) as part of a circus act, Philippe demonstrated an acute entrepreneurial instinct, selling pictures of himself on the side for a profit that exceeded his base salary.
During his travels, Philippe was able to amass a small fortune, which he later used to achieve his dream, to build a home tailored to the needs of a little person.
But before Philippe would would have his custom-built mansion, he found love in the form of Rose Dufresne. A little person herself, Rose and Philippe met in Massachusetts in 1906. Not long after, on November 21, 1913, the two were wed, and Rose Dufresne became Rose Nicol.
Seven years later (after a brief stint living in Massachusetts and various travels with Philippe's circus) the Nicols made their way to Montreal. It was here that Philippe decided he would build his dream house, one designed with a little person in mind.
Not only that, Philippe, fusing his natural charisma (honed during his time as a circus performer) and entrepreneurial spirit, hoped to make his dream home a tourist attraction.
In essence, Philippe wanted to create a dwelling where he could live comfortably with his wife and earning a living. Honestly, it's a desire many of us aspire to, but Philippe actually made it happen.
And so Philippe began preparations to create the space that would become known as the "Midgets Palace."
Originally, Philippe aimed to have his palace built right inside of Parc La Fontaine, amid the natural green of the park. That aspect of Philippe's dream would never come to light, unfortunately, as the City of Montreal wouldn't approve of the building project.
So instead, the Nicols purchased and remodelled and existing home on 961 Rachel East, and in 1913, Montreal's Midgets Palace was open to the public.
Calling themselves Count and Countess Nicol, the couple styled themselves as "the world's smallest couple" and "the richest of all dwarfs."
The pair made the Palace even more enticing by stating on flyers "you can see midgets everywhere - but you cannot see them in in their own castle like us...you never saw anything like it."
And this sentiment was one of the driving purposes behind the Midgets Palace, to showcase how little people go about their day-to-day life. The Midgets Palace wasn't just an oddity, but a window into the lives of a marginalized community that were often the butt of jokes and ridicule at the time.
The house itself consisted of nine rooms, where everything save the ceilings were "shrunk" to accommodate individuals like the Nicols who are well below four feet in height.
For example, in the living room stood a miniaturized (and entirely functional) piano, with bench only ten inches high. The kitchen was modelled the same, with the sink and stove ideal for either of the Nicols to use comfortably. Even the TV and radio were scaled-down, although that was probably just for aesthetic effect.
A doll repair shop was also housed in the Midgets Palace, an added feature that definitely fit the overall thematic of the tourist destination.
Rose and Philippe would eventually add to to the Palace's list of attractions when their son, Philippe Nicol (named after his father, of course) was born on September 19, 1926. Dubbing him the "Rare Baby" and the "Prince of all Midgets" (to fit with the fact that Rose and Phil Sr. were the "Kings and Queen"), the younger Nicol would never grow much taller than his father. He would also eventually turn to a life of crime, but that's another story entirely.
And for years, that's how the Nicols lived, inviting strangers into their home (for about five cents each, at least at the beginning) built for little people, a well-known attraction in Montreal and beyond.
During the Midgets Palace's original tenure, with the Nicols acting as the show-runners and organizers, Montrealer Huguette Rioux started helping out at the house. Unable to find a job as a bilingual secretary, Rioux took a position at the Midgets Palace, and would eventually be the driving factor in continuing its legacy.
For at the age of 58 in 1940, Philippe Nicol the senior died in Montreal. Rose would pass on some years later in 1964. Then, in 1972, Huguette Rioux would take over the administration of the Midgets Palace, purchasing the property and transforming it into a pseudo-musuem.
And for years on, the Midgets Palace remained a sought-after tourist destination. Tour buses would take travellers past the historic site and plenty of press coverage on the Palace continued well into the 1980s. During this time, Rioux also opened up the top floors of the Palace as a hotel for little people visiting Montreal.
Keeping the same lighthearted ambiance upheld by Nicol, Rioux did shift some of the focus onto the struggles encountered by little people each and every day, more so than before. Rioux even considered changing the name of the touristic institution, seeing "midget" as the pejorative term we modernly view it as today.
But Rioux decided against changing the name of an attraction that held such a long and entirely unique history in Montreal. And so the Midgets Palace kept its name, and continued to exist as a Montreal oddity, offering daily tours to any and all who visited until its closure in March of 1990.
And so concludes the history of Montreal's Midgets Palace, a part of the city's past seldom told.
Why the Palace isn't remembered more often can't be confirmed, though the name and exhibitionism of an alienated group of people probably has something to do with it
But we can't forget that below the surface of the Palace's history is the story of a couple who embraced their uniqueness, shared it with the world, and thrived because of it. And isn't that the most "Montreal" story one can tell?