“Shoebox”, of modest houses, but of the proud owners

Photo: Jacques Nadeau Le Devoir
The “shoebox” stands out among the other buildings, which, however, only serve to reproduce this model in a larger.

Towards the end of the Nineteenth century and at the beginning of the next, under the pressure of industrialization, workers in montreal are struggling to escape the conditions of their housing. They’re going to build, often with no resources other than their resourcefulness, small type houses Boomtown, a style that is reminiscent of cities mushrooms westerns. These houses typed will be also referred to as ” shoebox “, because of their shape.


The workers are earning the periphery to build these small living spaces. These single-storey houses, little clear of the ground, often without a cellar, have a flat roof or slightly slanted. The ones that remain today often appear shifted in relation to the buildings that surround them. Number of duplex and triplex’s most esteemed is that of simple derivatives inflated by the same conception of the home popular.


These low houses were especially despised because they do not belong to the tradition of the bourgeois house. They represent not least a large slice of the history of the city.




There would be no today only a few hundred of these houses which still bear witness to the ingenuity of the workers and of the effects of the pressure that is exerted on them. Their alignment is deficient with neighbouring buildings continues to create unexpected opportunities. But these type houses shoebox have very often been bought up for the sole value of their land ; and soon demolished, their memory is erased before the burst of the real estate.


In the neighbourhoods of Rosemont, a recent project for the demolition of two houses of this type has raised the ire of those who believe in the importance of their meaning and of their place in the urban fabric. This is notably the case of professor David Hanna, of the Department of urban studies and tourism, UQAM. Professor Hanna has called on all forums, once again, the interest of these houses as a witness to the life of Montreal’s working. He also noted that they are still often a first home for young couples who, while wishing to live in Montreal, just do not have the means to pay more than the value of these houses.

Photo: Jacques Nadeau Le Devoir
A house of type Boomtown as there are still a few hundred to Montreal.

For a long time, the boroughs have made little of the case of these modest houses. The historical dimension of these homes and the place they still occupy in the lives of Montreal’s neighbourhoods are now better taken into account. A project for the demolition of these houses is now the outrage would have been unthinkable a few years ago.


The explosion


In 1852, Montreal has 58 000 inhabitants. Just fifty years later, the population has increased almost fivefold. This explosion is the massive arrival of immigrants, the development of an industry that attracts workers from the regions and also to the annexation of neighbouring municipalities. With its suburbs, the city of Montréal is home to approximately 325 000 souls in 1901. The demographic pressure is such that a sudden housing shortage.


With the new possibilities offered by the transport at the beginning of the Twentieth century, the possibilities to separate the workplace from the home space, a characteristic of the industrial city, inflate to Montreal. A number of workers benefit from the network of trams and the development of the road network to tinker with these houses cheap in areas often far removed from their work.


The house Boomtown is a way to relieve themselves of the daily pressure exerted on the body by the factory and living in overcrowded housing. The construction of these houses, left to the spring a certain amount of creativity, bears witness to a profound desire to escape the social control imposed by the terms of the poverty experienced in the streets and alleys of the city.

Photo: Jacques Nadeau Le Devoir
The alignment deficient “shoebox” with the neighbouring buildings creates unexpected opportunities.

The Montreal area has long been a lot of what we today would call slums. In Ville Jacques-Cartier, swallowed from Longueuil, cartoons, sewer, electrical connections made in fraud of the stray dogs that are taken to the police and telephone poles make up the everyday landscape. The streets often are not even paved. They turn into large cesspools at the slightest rain, not to mention the winter.


These difficult conditions are common to many families of the island of Montreal. The people who, to get by, manage to build shoebox trying to escape the harshness of this poverty forgotten.




There will be several waves of construction of these houses from the end of the Nineteenth century until the mid-Twentieth century.


The eclectic character of the materials used to build these houses already announces their allure variegated. Old buildings or new construction, such as that of Shop Angus, the amateur builders obtain a beam, plank, brick, etc. The insulation will be based on the carton. The tar paper and siding to brick or plastered cheap protect these wooden houses in which several generations will live.


In front of these houses, it is not at all in a concept of luxury and its ornamentation, but rather in the spirit of the feature, the pride of being at home. These houses also bear witness to the illusory assurance of independence in the face of the world of work.




Of course, the living conditions are not the same for everyone. In the thousands of photographs of William Notman, the most famous montreal-based photographer of the Nineteenth century, one finds several views of middle-class houses, of stone or brick, and modelled according to the standards of comfort in a victorian. Often, the crews of horses pose in front of these large and elegant homes immortalized by the photographer. The owners of these palaces are obviously very proud of their residence, a reflection of bright of their social condition.


There are almost nothing in the mountain of photographs produced by the studios Notman who shows innumerable low houses grow at the same time in the neighbourhoods of the workers. However, they do exist, these low houses, built in speed to accommodate the breath of life.


The houses shoebox will be built wherever the popular town stretches, in Rosemont, Hochelaga, Villeray, Verdun, Saint-Michel or elsewhere.


In essence, these Montrealers dream spontaneously the opposite of that advocated by Le Corbusier, the architect, the most famous of the century, which asserts peremptorily, that the family home, with his little tree, its garden and its courtyard, is an outdated view that it is necessary to replace with standards of living to pre-established and carefully measured. In Montreal, the socialization of workers and their desire for independence lead them rather to want to replicate the private space, where many of them were able to taste a campaign to which they remain attached.

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