Montreal·In Depth

Remembering Motel Raphaël: Guest who stayed the longest recalls its decline

Montreal's Motel Raphaël, a roadside haven for drugs and prostitution, was finally torn down this week. John Rankine, 81, who lived there for 17 years, shares his memories.

Once an example of post-war car culture, what was left of dilapidated NDG icon was demolished this week

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      Montreal's Motel Raphaël, in its zenith a prosperous example of the post-war roadside-motel boom, slid into seediness, becoming a haven for drug use and prostitution before going bankrupt in 2009. 

      This week, what was left of the dilapidated, graffiti-covered building in the western corner of NDG was finally torn down.

      While most of the motel's guests didn't stay long — some only for a few hours —  John Rankine called the place home for 17 years.

      "It was convenient," he said.
      John Rankine, now 81, in front of his former home and place of employment, the Motel Raphael on St. Anne de Bellevue Blvd., in 2009 soon after its closure. (Courtesy of Isaac Olson/Free Press)

      Rankine, now 81, worked as a pipe-fitter within walking distance of the motel, at a factory in nearby LaSalle.

      After retiring from his full-time job, Rankine occasionally worked at the motel's front desk, giving him an inside look into one of city's seedier establishments.

      "That's when I got to learn about a lot of things that were going on in there," Rankine, who still lives in NDG, recalled in an interview.

      "They were renting out rooms for four hours, of course. That's when the trade was coming in. I didn't like it really, but that was part of the game."

      "It was always the girl signing the register," Rankine said, recalling checking in prostitutes and their male clients.

      "We couldn't control that. What goes on behind closed doors, you had nothing to say about."

      After closing in 2009, Motel Raphaël was finally knocked down on Wednesday. (CBC)

      Seedy strip

      The sprawling 75-room roadside motel, with its flashy sign, ample parking and a kidney-shaped pool out front, was once a draw to weary travellers and vacationers.
      Graffiti artists brightened up the abandoned building with their spraypaint, leaving it nearly unrecognizable. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

      But by the 80s, the motel had come to exemplify the sordid section of St-Jacques Street West (though it's actually located on Ste. Anne de Bellevue Boulevard, a little further west). 

      Scroll through news archives and Motel Raphaël comes up often: a man died after a fire in a room in 2006, another was found dead in a bathtub in 1993 after being stabbed multiple times.

      "Some people would come there, and, of course, they would use drugs as well," said Rankine.

      "One of the persons who used to go around cleaning the rooms had to watch themselves because they would find needles around."

      Immortalized in song

      Emily Skahan (centre) and her bandmates Maya Malkin and Clara Legault named their music group after the flashy motel. Skahan remembers driving past as a kid on her way from the West Island to Montreal. (Motel Raphaël )

      Despite its shady reputation, or perhaps because of it, the motel took on folklore status. A local band even decided to name itself after the motel. 

      Emily Skahan, one of three members of Motel Raphaël, grew up on the West Island, and remembers seeing the motel when she drove into the city.

      "We passed that multiple times. I always asked my parents if we could go because there was a pool and it was so luxurious — not knowing that it wasn't that at all.

      Later, though, she realized, "It's pretty much the ugliest part of the city."

      Canvas for graffiti

      In the years since the motel was shut down, the building was a magnet for graffiti lovers but was viewed as a major eyesore to commuters

      Lorne Miller from Construx/Proforma, the company that bought the building after the motel shut down, began bulldozing the site this week.

      It will take a couple of weeks to a month to finish the job, which includes planting grass, he said.

      Long-term plans for the site include four condo buildings with a total of 185 units. He said his company might do the work or sell it to another developer.

      The borough ordered the company to clean it up on May 5. The deadline is June 5. 

      In recent years, the motel had become a magnet for graffiti artists. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

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