Les Escaliers de Montréal

Sounds like a romantic novel.

I was first introduced to Montréal’s iron exterior staircases back in 1993 during my first visit. There was snow on the ground and it was freezing (-40F at night). My future wife pointed them out and said they were special to the city. At the time I thought for sure I had seen staircases like that elsewhere and why were they so special here.

Snowy Stair

But my primary thought was similar to other people’s initial reaction to the stairs. First, why would you build your stairs outside given the wintery conditions in this city. It wouldn’t take much for you to slip and bounce down the stairs on your rear end. Plus the stairs have no risers so there is an opening between the horizontal treads. So if your foot slips the other way, my imagination sees your leg slipping into that hole and your shin cracking in half as the weight of the rest of you body is taken down by gravity. Ouch!

After two years of asking around, I think I’ve come up with some reasons to counter that initial logic. Many of the areas where these were built were the poorer areas of the city. Since they did not have much money, it made sense to place the stairs outdoors so that they would not need to be heated all winter. I think eventually they became part of the built vernacular and it was an architype adopted by buildings built by and for those with better means.

As for that opening in the stair riser, it’s a question of climate. Yes, the snow will fall on the stairs, but it is much much easier to remove it off a surface open to all sides than one with only one side open. I remember trying to sweep the snow off our wooden front stairs and it took quite a bit of extra work since the snow wanted to stay lodged between the riser and the tread.

Modern Stair

Lastly, there is the reason for steel as opposed to wood stairs. Firstly, I think it is because the strength of steel allows more flexibility of form that is needed to wind the stairs so they have enough run (length). You wouldn’t be able to create wooden stairs that twist like that and seem to float in space. Another reason for steel is that it would not deteriorate as quickly. The freeze-thaw cycles up here are brutal and something that is so exposed like these stairs would be destroyed. As it is, the steel already takes quite a beating. Lastly, there may have been some other force like strong steel unions or political will that influenced steel over wood. If someone has some other explanations, I’d love to hear them.

I can’t say that I was too enamoured with the stairs at the beginning. For me they seemed like glorified fire escapes. They tend to be a separate entity from the building and they are not always in character with the architecture of the building. They seemed like unattractive appendages.

Ornate Siblings

But over the past couple years, I’ve started to warm up to them. They really are unique to the city and are an integral part of it’s character. I work in a neighborhood where 80% of the upper floor inhabitants access their residence via these stairs. It is the exterior extension of their abode just like the ubiquitous balconies used primarily for bicycle storage. Now, I’m not passionately in love with the stairs, but I have become mildly fascinated with them. I have even created a Flickr group. From a structural standpoint, I find the twist and turns that they take quit interesting. From an urban observation viewpoint, it is interesting to see people climb up to their residence every night. It’s kinda like they are climbing up to a treehouse safe from the predators below (OK, I’m stretching a bit there.) But they do evoke some sort of romanticism with their curvatious and ornate forms. And in a climate so cold, they seem to offer a feeling of someplace warmer like New Orleans or the south of France.

So love them or hate them, they are one of the things that make Montréal Montréal. They are part of it’s heritage and character and are definitely worth a look.

~ by Frank on May 19, 2007.

16 Responses to “Les Escaliers de Montréal”

  1. My understanding of the history of our external stairs is that they meant you didn’t have to “waste” indoor space on staircases. If you dig, I suspect you may find that their adoption was a solution to a zoning law, as the ubiquitous Montreal double room is a solution to the law mandating that every room must have an exterior window.

  2. An article (in French) about Montreal staircases here : http://www.fdlm.org/fle/article/325/montreal.php
    I read somewhere else that when the city decided that you had to leave space between the sidewalk and the building, the promoters started building exterior staircases to regain the lost space.

  3. I heard also that property taxes are due only for living space enclosed within walls as ooposed to the whole property, so putting the stairs outside makes for some nice savings. I haven’t really found any supporting info for that theory, but I’ll keep looking.

    Amazing pictures btw

  4. I like that the staircases, which are often attached to small balconies, serve the same function as New York’s front stoops: i.e., they’re a mid-point between public and private life. I do hate shovelling mine in winter, though.

  5. Love this post and the photos. Montreal tends to have a lot of characteristics that are suited to another climate, like balconies and concrete as a building material. I always found that from certain vantage points (going up doctor penfield right when it merges with pine, for instance) the city had a Mediterranean look to it. Like Marseilles or Madrid.

  6. Kate & Danielle, Thanks for the other possible reasons. I’ll try to do some more research.

    Bruno, taxes seems like a good reason. In Greece, you don’t have to pay taxes until the building is finished. So you end up with these landscapes of buildings with the reinforcing bars for the columns sticking up from the roof. Since they hadn’t built that last story, they don’t have to pay.

    Vila, Yes, I really like that aspect of it. It makes it an interesting transition.

    Jon, the balconies intrigue me also. Not so much that they are there, but that they are used. During the summer there are always at least a half dozen people sitting out on their balconies on the block where I park my car near work. It’s Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street” in action.

  7. […] Posts 1. Photo Stores in Montréal 2. My Road to Montréal 3. Minneapolis Bridge Collapse 4. Les Escaliers de Montréal 5. Snow Removal in Montreal/ Save My Space in Chicago 6. Last of the Blogspot-hicans 7. The […]

  8. Hello. I’m the art director of a Canadian history magazine for kids age 8 to 11. I am looking for photos of Montreal row houses for a feature we’re doing on unusual Canadian homes. I love the second photo on this page! Would you be interested in providing a photo for publication in our little magazine? Your photo would be seen by kids all across Canada. Please let me know if you can help. Thanks!

  9. Hello There,

    I am contacting you from Rotarian Magazine. We are a not for profit and would really like to use one of your photographs of the stairs in a little section about Montreal. The picture would only run about an inch and a half large, but we would like to credit you if that is ok with you. If you could please respond with your full name, we would greatly appreciate it!

  10. Hello:

    I have linked your site “escalier” article to mine “Architectural Travel: Montréal à la mode” via Facebook. I am Bob Fisher, The Philosophical Traveller (www.PhilosophicalTraveller.ca). In many ways Montréal is my spiritual home. Any chance we can become friends via Facebook? As you will see from my site, I also do podcasts … either on location or via Skype. Would this interest you? My direct email is robefish@pathcom.com.

  11. My apologies to the last three comments for not responding sooner. If you are still interested in the photos, let me know. Thanks for the interest.

  12. A few year ago I was in urban planning at UQAM at we talked about those stairs in one of my class. The space saving aspect was one of the important point of why they were made that way at the time according to my teacher but he also brought up another aspect which was religion. One of the reason why the stairs were made that way was so that they could keep an eye on their kids. At the time, interior stairs were the perfect place to kiss and etc. I think that with our very religious past this can have been an important aspect to take into consideration.

  13. That’s one had not heard of before, Charles. So now the stairs are only for exhibitionists.

  14. […] My drawings there don’t really do the real thing justice… so, here’s a photo I found here. […]

  15. A possible explanation that was given to me by a historian of architecture is that when the automobile industry expanded, a lot of blacksmiths gradually found themselves unemployed (less than shoeing horses and repairing carts) and are turned to the manufacture of stairs and wrought iron guards

  16. Interesting. That’s the first time I’ve heard of that explanation.

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