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A short history of the first banking building in Canada

BMO has helped drive progress in Canada in many ways – for a thriving economy, a sustainable future and an inclusive society. But it’s also done so for architecture, thanks to a rich legacy of historically significant buildings.

BMO’s Montreal main branch, a neoclassical building which dates to 1847, is significant for a number of reasons. The main branch is identified as Transit 0001 (symbolic as this was our first branch) and is located at 119 St. Jacques Street in the Old Port of Montreal. It was constructed next to the site of BMO’s first branch, erected in 1819, which was Canada’s first purpose-built bank structure.

Image: Artistic rendering of the first purpose-built bank building in Canada, 1961.

The current branch building was designed by local architect John Wells, who won a contest to develop a design for the bank. Wells was inspired by the Commercial Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh.

The original dome, erected in 1847, was replaced a few years later due to sagging. The building was then expanded between 1901 and 1905 to better accommodate the growing clientele. The dome is 90 feet from floor to ceiling and the fourth floor is where the bachelors used to reside.

Image: Photograph of the Montreal main branch located in the Old Port of Montreal, Quebec.

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The architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, of New York, took on the expansion of this heritage building. A firm famous in its own right, they were also responsible for building the Boston Public Library and Penn Station in New York and would later be engaged by the bank to construct our Winnipeg main branch (now home to the Metis Nation Heritage Centre).

The expansion of the building was inspired by the churches in Rome. The interior features gilded ceilings and granite and marble imported from Vermont and Italy. Due to the quantity of gold featured in the building, you can truly say that the value of the building changes every day.

Banking buildings of the time were meant to instill faith in their customers and convey the permanence of the institution. It is for this reason that banking buildings were built to be so grand.

The interior of the branch features several historically significant tributes. The main banking hall features “Patria,” a statue by James Earle Fraser erected in 1923 to commemorate the BMO employees who fell during the First World War. A list of their names is included on one of the walls closest to it. Following the Second World War, a second tribute was erected on the neighbouring wall. The branch also has two Rolls of Honour from the Merchants Bank and Molsons Bank, two banks acquired by BMO in the early 20th century. When these banks joined BMO, their heritage merged with ours.

Visitors at the building should also take the time to visit the Bank of Montreal Museum located in the building, which shares the story of our growth over the last 200-plus years.

Image: Photograph of “Patria” by James Earle Fraser, 1923.