"Shoe boxes," the little houses that have survived the passage of time in Montreal, tend to attract attention. In the urban landscape, they seem out of place. In order to better get to know the history of these little houses, we met with three of their owners. They were all chosen by chance during a walk in the Rosemont neighborhood, and they all share an unconditional love for their tiny homes.
How was the construction of the small, one-family houses possible in a dense environment like that of Rosemont? Simple: at the beginning of the 20th century, they represented the only way for workers to finally have their own houses, and they did not have the means to build any bigger.
David Hanna, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal and former president of Heritage Montreal, explains that at the turn of the 20th century, the emergence of the railway promoted the rapid development of several Montreal neighborhoods, including Rosemont. Good news for the less wealthy families: the land there was less expensive.
Owners who had the means built duplexes, or less frequently, triplexes. The others chose to build modest houses, with only one story, often with a total square footage of less than 600. The urban plan even allowed them to occupy the back of the space, at once making a lot of room for gardening in the front.
"These houses are very significant because they were the first access to property in Montreal for the popular classes," sums up David Hanna.
While on the exterior they clash with the urban landscape, the materials used in their construction are original. The lands of the Angus factories, built during the same period in order to repair and fabricate railway materials, have often served as open-air stores.
"Several of these houses were made with borrowed materials from the Angus shops. They were constructed with what the workers found. One of these houses was destroyed near my house, and inside a wall, they found a newspaper that spoke of the "Titanic!" enthusiastically recounts Pierre Lefaivre of the Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie Historical Society.
He adds that several of these houses rest on the immense pieces of treated wood that were used for railways. "It's solid! The construction site of the Angus factories was immense, and it was not very well surveyed. It was not too difficult to find provisions there."
Despite the eclectic character of the materials used for the construction of these houses, they have heritage value, insists David Hanna.
Moreover, the professor collaborates with Heritage Montreal and gives a course on the history of the different types of housing in Montreal, as part of a more extensive training on residential renovations. The professor's objective is to sensitize the owners to the importance of preserving the original character of their homes.
Better Supervised Demolitions
The Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie arrondisement also recognizes the heritage value of the shoe boxes. Over the last few years, the strength of the real estate market has pushed several developers to demolish them in order to build two- or three-story condos there.
All of the owners of the shoe boxes that we have met are unanimous: They are very often asked to sell their homes. "We have offers every week. People who knock on the door, or brokers who leave their business cards in the mailbox," confirms Denise Heroux, the owner of one of these little houses since the 1990s.
In addition, since 2013, the arrondisement has been examining all the demolition demands for the single-family homes, something that was not the case before. "In 2013, we received 13 demands for demolition, and we did not put forth any refusal," explains Marie-Claude Perreault, in charge of communication for the arrondisement. "This year, we have received six demands, and we refused one of them."
Ms. Perreault explains that the developers now inform themselves more on the criteria the arrondisement has for obtaining a permit before they present their demand. The result: several delay or abandon their demolition project.
The architect Daniel Legault knows something about this. He has been working for months in order to get approval for the demolition of a miniscule shoe box located at 1st Avenue for a condo building with three stories. "This building, with one story, it's not at all in the same alignment as its neighbors. I believe that it is important to keep this alignment for a uniform urban fabric. This is what I propose," he explains, impatient to receive a response from the arrondisement about his project, Ratio6675.
The residential renovation runs of Heritage Montreal, in which David Hanna participates, will resume in spring 2015.
Hidden Behind the Raspberry Bushes
The house of Jean-Marc Boucher and Lorraine Curadeau is barely visible from the street. It is hidden behind immense raspberry bushes, which are overflowing with ripe fruits, even at the end of the month of October. At the end of a large garden, the couple occupies the little house that they bought in 1998 for $52,000. "I wanted a house, and this was the chance for me to have one!" recounts the owner, who had been a tenant before, just a stone's throw away from here. He has renovated the house year after year, going as far as even digging out a basement, by hand.
The dream of having property, in Montreal, was fulfilled by this house for the Boucher-Curadeau couple - a great renovation project that mobilizes the whole extended family.
In order to maximize the space of his house, Jean-Marc Boucher dug out a part of his basement himself. One can access it via a trap door located at the entrance of the house.
"You see that wall over there?" I dug that myself with a hammer and a little shovel to gather the ashes of the home!" proudly recounts the owner. The basement serves as both a storage place and a work room.
At the beginning, the house of Jean-Marc Boucher and Lorraine Curadeau measured 25 by 26 feet. The couple proceeded with a small enlargement at the front, notably in order to build an atelier there.
It was never a matter of ceding to the temptation of adding a second level, like numerous shoe box owners had done. "It was plenty here, and we extended it by 15 feet, and that it still plenty! If we added a second story, that would be plenty as well! The more space you have, the more you add!" exclaims Mr. Boucher.
Of the History in the Ceiling
Jacques Carle and Josee Poirier-Carle moved to their shoe box in 2002. A friend of theirs was inheriting the house and proposed that they rent it. In the kitchen, the couple points out the beam in the middle of the room. "We are sure and certain that if we lifted everything around it, we would find out that this beam was a railway rail," exclaims Josee. Happy to live in a building rich in history, the couple happily accepts living in a restrictive space.
The house is 100 years old; however, it has only had three owners. The history between its walls fascinates Josee Poirier-Carle. "I love old furniture, and it is at home here."
The dimensions of the kitchen are also of the era. The counters are particularly low. "I think it's because people were smaller at the time, and that it was always women who cooked," supposes Ms. Poirier-Carle.
The spaces are certainly small, but the couple confirms that they feel good there. "The owners could build a second story, but for us, it's perfect," adds Jacques. "It's just the two of us."
The house is nestled between two duplexes, but at the front, the couple benefits from a large garden, and enough space to receive the extended family.
The Project of a Lifetime
In 1976, Gaetane Richard and her husband payed $15,500 to purchase their house that they have enlarged with money they had on hand: the fruit of many years of economizing. Thereafter, they put nearly a year into renovating it themselves, without relenting, day after day. After years of "renting," they then moved there with their three children, immediately getting a taste for the comfort of life in a single-family house. "We were raised very poor. When you start earning a little bit of money, you pay a lot of attention to it," recounts Ms. Richard. "We worked very hard for this house, and we are very proud of ourselves."
Today, a widow, Gaetane takes extra special care of the house that she and her husband renovated from wall to wall in the 1970s. A year went by between the sale and the move of the family in 1976: the time that the couple realized, by itself, the necessary work to make it livable for their three children.
Light is everywhere, in the kitchen, in the dining room, which are astonishingly large for this type of house. The doors overlook a glass veranda.
The garden, at the front of the house, is impeccable, even in the fall. Ms. Richard's husband especially appreciated the parking space.
Like a gap in the urban landscape, this shoe box is flanked by two much more voluminous buildings. The greenery assures the owner a minimum of privacy.
Are tiny homes allowed to be built in your community? In your city are there planning codes that prevent the building of tiny homes? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.
Original article originally published in French, here.
Credits: Data and images linked to sources.