Driving across the Ottawa River to Québec, then east on highway QC-50, past Gatineau suburbs and into the hills of the Laurentians, we traverse the sunny frozen landscape and notice the car’s thermometer indicating -23, while not showing the real temperature of -35 with the wind chill. Our vehicle is packed with suitcases, skates, snowshoes and poles — we’re optimistically prepared for an array of winter resort activities at our destination.
Up ahead is the world’s largest log structure nestled by the Ottawa River at the foot of the mountain range. Soon we see the highway sign and eagerly anticipate our arrival. We’re not sure what to expect, never having been there before, although the reviews make it look promising and we look forward to top-notch Fairmont quality.
We turn off the highway and drive down a winding road lined with snow-capped evergreens leading to the village of Montebello. Soon entering the Chateau grounds under a log gate — the first indication of just how much log architecture we’re about to see — we stop to take in the sight of a dog sled with barking huskies leading very bundled up people though the woods.
We pull up to the massive log chateau, a dark brown structure set against the late afternoon winter sky. Disembarking under what is described in the original 1930 brochure as a “spacious porte-cochère”[i] decorated with a multitude of seasonal lights, a team of valets is suddenly at our service. They whisk our bags and gear onto a cart and inside the foyer. We follow them into the entry, revealing a very busy lobby.
If “architecture is frozen music”, then the lounge of Le Chateau Montebello would be a magnificent crescendo
Entering the lounge, the scene becomes very interesting architecturally. The sight of a massive six-sided stone fireplace, set in the center with wood fires burning in each side, is impressive and unique. The chimney ascends into the heights of three stories to a ceiling of exposed wood walls and criss-crossing log beams. A very grand yet warming sight.
Two gallery floors encircle above, in a hexagonal pattern with hallways leading into each of the six wings of the chateau. According to Building the Chateau Montebello, a book by local authors Allan and Doris Muir that we will discuss throughout this article, the lounge is “an immense space in no dimension measuring less than one hundred feet across … The lower gallery, called the mezzanine, is quite broad and, being furnished with couches and comfortable chairs commanding a view of the entire lounge, is popular as a sitting-out place. Two immense windows at the east and west ends admit adequate daylight and no more, and the absence of glare and the soft tones of the cedar log walls give this room an air of repose, rather unexpected in view of its size”.[ii]
If “architecture is frozen music”, as Goethe said, then the rotunda lounge would be a magnificent crescendo. We’re both thinking about sitting by the fireplace, having a hot drink, and contemplating all that could be done indoors instead of outside. Maybe we won’t be using those skates after all, this time.
Turning our attention to settling in our room, we ascend the wide carpeted staircase, past many people of all ages dressed in a variety of winter gear, others wearing dinner attire, and a few in robes on their way to the largest indoor hotel swimming pool in Canada[iii], as well as a surprising number of dogs. We find the long hallway leading to our room, lined with beautiful heritage paintings, and proceed to the end where we see a plaque indicating that former French president François Mitterand stayed there in 1981.
We have a “Seigneury” corner room on the second level looking out at the frozen Ottawa River. We arrive just at sunset with the sun going down over the snowy boat docks and skiers going by. The room is 1930’s period-decor, very Canadiana, rustic but luxurious. Landscape paintings depict skating, skiing and tobogganing. The walls are solid logs, painted dark brown.
The noise of the outside hallway is quickly silenced when closing the heavy wood door, and we find the entire room very quiet, speaking to the insulating value of the solid wood construction. The Muirs quoted the lodge’s architect Harold Lawson on this, who stated: “The partitions are soundproof being virtually double on staggered studs and having four thicknesses of wallboard”[iv] (p. 81). The room is warm, cozy and charming with heritage-style armchairs and lamps, and plaid bedding and curtains. The desk chair looks hand-made with narrow pieces of rough-hewn wood. The large windows with wrought iron hardware appear to have been unchanged since installation and can open fully, a rare occurrence in modern hotels. However, we’re definitely not opening them today!
There’s a long story behind this property. It is built in the Outouais region along the Ottawa River and on the slopes of the Laurentian mountains in Quebec, nearly mid-way between Ottawa and Montréal. This is the traditional land of the Anishinabe people, who have inhabited eastern Canada for as far back as can be traced[v]. Most readers will be familiar with the name “Algonquin” for the Anishinabe [or Anishinabeg], which was given to them during the time of Samuel de Champlain. According to the website of the Algonquin-Anishinabeg First Nation Tribal Council: “Although, in recent years the Algonquin have resumed using the name “Anishinabe” which they have called themselves since time immemorial, the term Algonquin was imposed on them for more than 400 years by Euro Canadians.” [vi] The site notes that the use of “Algonquin” is not considered disrespectful, however, we’ve chosen in this article to follow their request to use their original name Anishinabe.
Of note, Kichi Sibi is the original name for the Ottawa River, which means "the great river" in Anishinabe, the traditional river of that First Nation long before the Europeans arrived. The Ottawa River was named after a nation of people from Georgian Bay who never lived in the Ottawa area, the Odawas, who acted as middleman to the French fur traders between 1655 and 1680. Samuel de Champlain chose an Anishinabe word "Kebek" for his colony, which became Quebec City in 1608. According to his Anishinabe allies, this word means "where the river narrows". It might also mean a place to greet strangers or a place to disembark.[vii]
For a resort area that is so connected to the outdoor activities of snow-shoeing, tobogganing and canoeing, it is worthwhile noting that the origins of the use of these activities trace to the Anishinabe. According to the Tribal Council’s website, the Anishinabe name for snow shoes is "àgimag" and “each nation had its own way of making snowshoes depending on the terrain they travelled. The snowshoe associated to Algonquin people is curled up in front and elongated.”[viii]
Also, “Kenauk”, the name for the surrounding land, comes from the Anishinabe word “Mukekenauk”, meaning turtle. According to the site for Kenauk Nature, “the symbol for Kenauk Nature is the turtle, an amphibious animal that lives in water and on land: the elements of nature that are the basis for most activities here. The turtle is an important symbol in many cultures, including native folklore, representing earth, longevity, healing, perseverance, tranquility and stability, and always plays the role of friendly companion.”[ix]
A grant of land in New France
In 1674, 65,000 acres of wilderness that would become the Chateau and the Kenauk lands, was granted by the King of France to Francois de Laval, Bishop of New France and a founder of Quebec. [x] The land became part of New France’s seigneurial system, a feudal socio-political structure under which the land owners were to develop land and promote settlement. In 1801 the property was transferred to Joseph Papineau, a notary and politician of Quebec’s prominent Papineau family. His eldest son and a famous Quebec politician, Louis-Joseph Papineau, took over the seigneury in 1817.[xi] Papineau was a leader of the 1837 rebellion in Lower Canada against British colonial control, and he promoted increased democratic rights and self-governance. Although Papineau was at the forefront of democratic change, one aspect he opposed was the ending of the seigneury system and he in fact spent his final years at the seigneury until his death in 1855. [xii] His grand home “Manoir Papineau” stands on the grounds of the Chateau and is a National Historic Site open for tours (late May through early October).
In 1929, the Papineau family sold the manor and land to an investment corporation, Lucerne-In-Quebec Community Association Ltd., that later became the Seigneury Club in 1933.[xiii]
1929: A Swiss-American entrepreneur’s dream meets Canadian VIPs and a Montreal architecture firm
The Chateau Montebello traces its roots to the entrepreneurship of Swiss-American businessman Harold M. Saddlemire. In 1929 Saddlemire had a vision for building a private members resort community called “Lucerne-in-Quebec”, undoubtedly named after Lucerne, Switzerland.
According to Building the Chateau Montebello: “The creation of the Chateau Montebello was tremendous news…the romance and history of its site, its huge area, its facilities for every known summer and winter sport, the unique log buildings, miles of roads, water supply and other amenities of modern life in a wilderness setting, made it almost a seventh wonder of the world – certainly of the Canadian world. Canadians woke up to the fact that the largest resort in the North American continent was planned for the North Shore of the Ottawa River and the forest area behind Montebello. They were further startled when they were told that the building was to take place at a scale and speed that challenged credulity.[xiv]
It was not Saddlemire’s first venture to bring his Swiss-idyllic vision to North America. Four years previously in 1925, he headed an initiative for “Lucerne-in-Maine”. That project took an existing hotel on Phillips Lake in Dedham, Maine, and attempted to implement a similar plan that we will see with the Chateau Montebello, including sports, activities, lodging and full resort offerings. He formed a “community association” that purchased a 500-acre estate, which included a continuously-operating historic hotel built in c. 1815, of frame construction in the Colonial Revival Style.[xv] His plan was to create a village where people could build log vacation homes.
According to a nomination form for the U.S. National Register of Historic Places: “A log lodge was built to accommodate club members, golf links, bridle paths, and roads were created, and house lots were laid out… Builders were free to choose architects and contractors, but the exteriors of the cottages were to be finished with logs sawed in half to give them a rough and rustic quality.”
The development moved forward with the support of the local community, prominent businessmen and officials, and opened for business on October 17, 1925. By 1930, it was reported in the Ottawa Journal as “one of the leading resorts in America.”[xvi] However, the Depression and “some mismanagement of funds” were cited as reasons in the nomination form for later ceasing the operation of the planned community. Most development reverted to its natural wooded area except for the hotel and a golf course. The form adds that the “era of the ‘rusticators’” influence persists as the “spirit of Lucerne-in-Maine (although not as it was conceived by the original trustees) lingers with the Lucerne Inn…The log house no longer stands… Although the resort area was laid out with some roads, comparatively few houses were ever built and these are widely dispersed.”[xvii]
Lucerne-in-Quebec would become a much more successful development than Saddlemire’s earlier project, and was originally conceived as a resort for members of what would be named the “Seigneury Club”.
By the outset of the Great Depression in 1929, Saddlemire had made significant associations with Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, Premier of Quebec, Canadian bankers Frederic L. Beique, President of the Banque Canadienne Nationale, Charles Gordon, President of the Bank of Montreal, Herbert Holt, President of the Royal Bank of Canada, and Sir Edward Beatty, Chairman and President of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Company, all of whom became the original Board of Directors of the Lucerne-in-Quebec Community Association Limited.[xviii] According to the website L’actualité, Harold had a great ability to convince influential people to work with him to make the grand Montebello project happen.[xix]
The resort plans worked well with the CPR’s efforts to build hotels and promote travel on its rail lines. The company was incorporated in 1881 with the original purpose of the construction of a transcontinental railway. The CPR’s hotel building began in the late 19th century and by 1930 the company had an impressive list of hotels from coast to coast, including the recently built Lord Nelson in Halifax (1927), the Hotel Saskatchewan in Regina (1927) and the Royal York in Toronto (1929).[xx] Guidance of the company was CPR Chairman Beatty’s “responsibility through a most difficult period which embraced the post-Great War depression, followed by the world's greatest business boom and its worst depression, and then the hard years of recovery”.[xxi]
It appears that the Chateau was not originally owned exclusively by the CPR, given the involvement of Saddlemire and the major banks; instead, the company may have invested in or was a partner with the “Lucerne-in-Quebec Community Association”. The original brochure from 1930 (see image below) indicates that it was published by both the Association and CP Rail and the copyright was only under the Association. Regardless, the CPR’s involvement was substantial, no doubt financially but also for the practical matters of rail transport of logs from BC, construction materials, workers, and more to the site. Also, a 1.9 kilometer “spur line” had to be constructed to the site that was otherwise only serviced by rough roads.[xxii]
By early 1930, agreements had been made with Montreal architect Harold Lawson of the firm Lawson and Little, to create the ambitious plan that would become the Chateau Montebello.
““The publicity given this undertaking naturally attracted crowds,” wrote Harold Lawson.”[xxiii] According to one article: “Included among the many commissions carried through by Mr. Lawson are: buildings for the Bell Telephone Company of Canada; numerous branch bank buildings in Canada; and the Seigneury Club at Lucerne-in-Quebec”.[xxiv] The Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada: 1800 – 1950, indicates that the firm’s “best-known work in Canada was a surprising departure from conventional urban forms.” It further notes that Lawson & Little also designed a total of twelve residences in Montebello following the completion of Lucerne-in-Quebec.[xxv]
One of the most remarkable aspects of the history of the Chateau is the manner in which it was built. The stock-market crash on “Black Tuesday” in October 1929 – which started what would become the Great Depression, an era that would sink many ambitious projects – happened only months before the initiation of the Lucerne-in-Quebec project. Despite this crisis, the project went ahead as planned. 3,500 workers were brought and housed in a near-wilderness area in the Laurentian foothills, tens of thousands of western red cedar logs were shipped from British Columbia to the site on a new railway track that was built for this project, a bog was transformed into elaborately landscaped grounds, and a magnificent log resort was built using traditional hand tools that were more prominent in the construction than machines. And, all of this was achieved in a mere four months, just in time for a grand opening on July 1st, 1930.
As the Muirs put it in their book, the buildings “were all to be built of logs, a tremendous novelty in itself, but their enormous size really baffled the mind. On top of all that, they were built at one time with a miraculous speed never before, it is believed, achieved in building construction.”[xxvi] Although log construction had been a traditional Canadian building technique since the 18th century[xxvii], and certainly used on many of the CPR’s massive bridges, for instance, certain techniques were new to Canada with this project. Many of the most skilled workers were from Scandanavia and Russia, where the log techniques had been perfected for centuries. Building the Chateau Montebello indicates that: “Only hand tools were used as skilled craftsmen trained men on the job to carve and fit each log to the one below it.” [xxviii]
Chief amongst these was Victor Nymark, an immigrant from Finland, who had arrived in Canada only six years prior, not knowing English or French. However, Nymark was already a master log builder who had built his first log building at the age of seventeen. In Canada, he realized that the only people who could afford his work were those with a great amount of wealth, so he marketed his services to them and found work. This is exactly how he found his way to the building site of the Chateau, where he became the Master Log Builder and directed the work of hundreds of workers. Years later, he provided a valuable contribution to the Muir’s book and his anecdotes of the construction are great to read.
The workers toiled in hazardous, muddy, and cold conditions, and worked rotating shifts around the clock, with night-time crews working under lighting. Despite this, there were no major accidents and many who worked on the project recalled it as one of the most fascinating experiences of their lives.[xxix] Many of the workers, as mentioned, were Europeans, but locals also formed the workforce, along with many who came from across the country. Employment was approximately 3,500 at the peak of construction, but many found work after July 1st as further buildings remained to be raised. This was not to mention the various residences that were to be built as part of the resort community. [xxx]
Engineering was also an enormous task, involving cutting-edge technology of the time. Construction also included an airport, golf course, cabins and boat docks, not to mention the restoration of the Manoir Papineau which was used for the club house and ballroom. [xxxi]
According to a June 28, 1930 Ottawa Journal article announcing the opening in a few days of a “Vast Four Season Vacationland”: “Announcements concerning the establishment of a unique, four-season vacationland at Montebello, P.Q., when made throughout Canada and the United States, caused widespread interest in the historically famous Seigneurie de la Petite Nation, which has been transformed into a vast, luxurious recreation resort to be known as Lucerne-in-Quebec.” [xxxii]
Time for dinner, but first, back to the lounge for maple-sweetened coffee
Having enjoyed our room, dinner time is nearing but first we return to the lounge for some relaxation in front of the fireplace. Surely there should be somewhere to sit at one of the many seating arrangements, and in front of one of the six sides of the fireplace. But this is not to be, the lounge is full and obviously everyone is taking shelter from the frigid outdoors, and instead making good use of the bar and board games. We take the only remaining stools beside what appears to be a gleaming black table, the contours of which we eventually notice belong to a grand piano, which soon comes to life when a smiling musician arrives and skillfully begins to play classic melodies. We sit with strong hot maple-sweetened coffees and admire the beautiful scene and this log architectural marvel that is Le Chateau Montebello.
Note: This is the first of a series of articles we’ll be writing about this vast heritage property, including more about the Chateau such as architectural features and influences, interior design choices, and the remaining history to the present day. Future articles will also elaborate on the Papineau Manor Historic Site, and the Kenauk nature reserve.
[i] p. 2 Original brochure: The Log Lodge: Lucerne-In-Quebec, Canadian Pacific Railway Company; Lucerne-in-Quebec Community Association Limited, 1930
[ii] pp. 79-80, Building the Chateau Montebello, Allan and Doris Muir in collaboration with Victor Nymark, Muir Publishing Company Limited, 1980 (1st printing), 2014 (3rd printing).
[iii] QACP – website for the Quebec Association of Convention Professionals: www.congres.com/en-hotel/fairmont-le-chateau-montebello
[iv] P. 81, Building the Chateau Montebello.
[v] p. 1 “The Algonkians”, National Museum of Canada Guide to the Anthropological Exhibits Leaflet 1, 1938.
[xi] p. 7, Building the Chateau Montebello.
[xii] p. 133, Louis-Hippolyte and Robert Baldwin, John Ralston Saul, 2010.
[xiv] p. 15, Building the Chateau Montebello.
[xv] p. 2, National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form, United States Department of the Interior Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, http://focus.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NRHP/Text/82000742.pdf
[xvi] June 28, 1930, Ottawa Journal, “A Vast Four Season Vacationland”.
[xvii] National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form, United States Department of the Interior Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, http://focus.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NRHP/Text/82000742.pdf
[xviii] Original brochure: The Log Lodge: Lucerne-In-Quebec, Canadian Pacific Railway Company; Lucerne-in-Quebec Community Association Limited, 1930
[xxi] Railway news website : http://www.okthepk.ca/dataCprSiding/articles/201009/month00.htm
[xxii] p. 15, Building the Chateau Montebello.
[xxiv] pp. 346-347 National Reference Book, Volume 9, 1951. National Library of Canada.
[xxvi] p. 15, Building the Chateau Montebello.
[xxviii] p. 42, Building the Chateau Montebello.
[xxix] p. 20, Ibid.
[xxx] pp. 15 - 23 Ibid.
[xxxi] June 28, 1930, Ottawa Journal, “A Vast Four Season Vacationland”.