Montreal

Drummond Medical Building's shift to high-end residential units marks end of an era

For nearly a century, the stately art deco highrise served as a medical hub to Montrealers. But in a few months, the final clinics remaining are expected to shut their doors for good.

In a few months, the last health clinics at the historic building will make way for rental apartments

The Drummond Medical Building was viewed as innovative when it was built in 1929. This photo dates to 1931 or 1932. The revolving door is no longer there. (Submitted McCord Museum)

Not every visit to the doctor's office starts with a greeting from a doorman.

The Drummond Medical Building is different. For nearly a century, the stately art deco highrise served as a medical hub to Montrealers.

But in a few months, the final clinics remaining are expected to shut their doors for good.

The owner plans to convert them into high-end residential rental units.

"It's sad to see it end this way," said Shawn Cohen, an ophthalmologist who has had an office in the building for 18 years.

"I would have been here forever. I don't think I have any motivation to leave."

He has yet to finalize where he will move next.

Ophthalmologist Shawn Cohen has had an office in the building for nearly two decades. (Alain Éthier/CBC)

'Distinctive in its day'

The 11-floor building was viewed as innovative when it was erected in the Golden Square Mile in 1929.

It was designed as a one-stop shop offering patients everything from dental to eye care, at a time when doctors were shifting from home visits to clinical care.

"It was actually quite distinctive in its day," McGill University architectural historian Annmarie Adams said.

"It was built to bring doctors together. It was a specialized commercial building for doctors' offices and it really represented a brand new building type."

This cutaway drawing appeared in the fashion and lifestyle magazine, The Montrealer and Passing Show, in May 1935. Part of the original text read: 'The above cut-away sketch illustrates Montreal’s only exclusively medical and dental building. Patients can be seen leaving their cars and stepping into the elevators—effortlessly reaching their doctors’ offices.' (Submitted David Theodore)

Even the parking garage is a testament to its mandate, she said.

The ornate facade masks an above-ground, multi-floor car park available for the hundreds of patients who visited daily.

Adams herself visits the building regularly. Her dentist is still there.

"We've been in the parking garage. It's a pretty wild experience," Adams said.

A symbol of the Anglo elite

Adams is the co-author of 'Tower of Power: The Drummond Medical Building and the Interwar Centralization of Medical Practice,' an academic article examining the relationship between the building's design and the history of health services in Montreal.

David Theodore, the lead author, said the jewellers Henry Birks & Sons wanted to build a parking garage, but the city wouldn't allow it.

So they commissioned Percy Erskine Nobbs, a famed Montreal architect, to draw up the plans for a health-care centre.

"It's very much tied to Montreal's traditional Scottish Protestant elite," Theodore said.

Theodore said he's concerned the building will lose some of its history after it becomes residential rental units.

At one time, the building housed up to 80 health clinics. This photo is believed to have been taken between 1931 or 1932. (Submitted McCord Museum)

Development targets high-end renters

A spokesperson for Monit Investments Inc., the owner of the building, said the owner intends on "maintaining the exterior" and "beauty of the building" for the future rental apartments.

"We're still in the planning stage," Jonathan Goldbloom said.

"It's obviously a prime location in the downtown core of the city, so one would assume that it'll reflect those who have the economic means to move here."

Goldbloom said many of the doctors "were in the twilight of their careers" and the decision to change the building is based on their forecast of a declining demand for clinics downtown.

Allan Israel, an 80-year-old dentist, is one of the last tenants. He graduated from McGill University in 1965 and opened his office on Drummond a year later.

He is relocating to Peel Street, where he will share a space with a younger dentist.

"It's a bit of an inconvenience having to move at this stage in the game," Israel said.

"The only other choice was to retire, which I don't want to do."

Allan Israel has been practicing dentistry in the Drummond Medical Building since 1966. (Dennis Cleary / CBC)

He's been treating one of his childhood friends, Michael Caplin, for decades.

Caplin used to go to the YMCA across the street. While working out, he would look through the window to see if Israel was working.

"This building has character, even if this character is kind of dated. It's got character," Caplin said.

For his part, he says he's fine with the owner's plan.

"Well, nothing is forever. It's as simple as that."

About the Author

Brian Lapuz

Journalist

Brian Lapuz is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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