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History under demolition

by Archives March 18, 2008

Just to make room on the couch for cats or company, Leo Leonard must relocate mounds of yellowed newspaper clippings, framed photographs and typewritten documents. Leonard’s paraphernalia tells the story of his long-time neighbourhood, Griffintown. But the real history lives in his backyard.
Eighty-two year-old Leonard is the owner of the Griffintown Horse Palace, a stable that rests in the shadow of nearby downtown skyscrapers. Most historians estimate it is at least 150 years old. “The older papers are too faded to read,” explained Leonard. “But Martin Kiely bought this place in 1862, that we know for sure.”
“The city says the house dates back to 1862, but that’s not true because everything was already here when Kiely bought it, the house, the stables, everything,” added Leonard’s wife, Hugette. “So it had to be built around 1835 when the Irish came over.”
At that time, homes with the same configuration as the Leonards’ residence, with a center courtyard, stables and an inn for travellers passing through, were commonplace in Griffintown. Nowadays, the Horse Palace is the last remaining functioning stable in the area.
Surrounded by abandoned buildings and deserted lots, the Horse Palace has become a relic of Griffintown’s past life as a flourishing community. The proud Irishman likes to tell stories of a time when O’Connells and Dowlings lived around the corner and children played in the street.
“All the lots you see vacant, they were all houses,” explained Leonard, pointing to neighbouring plots. “There’s a picture over there in the church grounds (where Saint-Ann’s Parish once stood), you can’t even see the streets. There are buildings all over the place. But everyone’s moved out. I stayed because I had the horses.”
The Leonards are now considering leaving their home of more than 50 years in favour of a senior housing complex in Verdun.
“My wife’s dying to get out of here,” said Leonard. “She had a stroke and can’t walk. I’d rather stay, but it would be better for her.”
If the Leonards sell the property, the Horse Palace could disappear. The stables are protected by a grandfather clause that states that if the owner does not keep horses for six months, the area will be permanently rezoned, making it impossible for horses to occupy the stables ever again. With the city’s new development project for the neighbourhood, the likelihood of this occurring is greater than ever.
In November 2007, the city of Montreal unveiled a plan to revitalize Griffintown in partnership with Devimco, the developers behind the colossal Dix30 shopping center in Brossard. Although Devimco’s representative assured Griffintowners that the stables would be preserved when questioned about it during a public consultation, the company’s plans indicate otherwise.
“They have a slide showing the demolition process and it shows all those stables being demolished,” explained Judith Gobeil, the Leonards’ next-door neighbour.
“They have another slide showing what they’re going to build and it shows, on this corner (Ottawa Street and Eleanor Street), an enormous building.”
When Gobeil asked Devimco representatives what the building was going to be, they responded that they didn’t know what they would do with it. “So we said, maybe you should put horses in there,” remembered Judith’s husband, Christopher Gobeil. “They didn’t like that idea very much,” Judith added.
The Gobeils, who founded the Committee for the Sustainable Redevelopment of Griffintown, feel so strongly about the stables they have launched a petition to ensure their survival. They are demanding that the site be considered a historical monument and be given the funding necessary to secure its future as a working stable. These recommendations were also made by the Conseil du Patrimoine and Patri-Arche, but have not been taken into consideration.
“This is the first time I’ve ever started a petition,” said Judith Gobeil. “Since we’ve moved here, it [the Horse Palace] has peaked my interest. I’ve gotten to know professors who’ve studied Leo’s place and I’ve come to understand the historical value of the place. It would make me really sad to see all that heritage go.”
On March 10, 2008, the Gobeils chose to represent their concern for the Horse Palace’s future at the public consultations taking place at the École de technologie supérieure on the corner of Peel and Notre-Dame.
In the midst of the downtown chaos, Leonard and Gobeil arrived at the meeting in a horse-drawn carriage, as members of the Commitee asked passer-bys to sign the petition to save the stables.
The Gobeils aren’t quite sure how many people have signed the petition as many copies are circulating. As of now, their outlook is pretty grim.
“Truly, if the project goes through as stands, the stables don’t have a chance,” said Judith Gobeil. “I just can’t see it surviving.”
For Leonard, the memory of horses in the backyard will live on, just like his souvenirs of Sunday morning services at Sainte-Ann’s Parish before it was destroyed.
But the gregarious man with the raspy voice figures he won’t be present to see his stables go. “I’ll be looking up from down below,” said Leonard laughing. “But it would be nice to know that it’s still here.”

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