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Montreal's iron icons: winding outdoor staircases win contest of local landmarks

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MONTREAL - With their medley of twists, swirls and curves, Montreal's unique outdoor stairways have weaved their wrought-iron railings into the city's fabric.

For more than a century, the sinuous staircases have slithered to Montreal sidewalks from doorsteps above, like all the features of a Snakes and Ladders game rolled into one.

A recent poll dubbed this architectural anomaly, found in few places outside Montreal, as the symbol that best represents Canada's second-largest city.

The exact origin of the residential staircases remains murky.

Theories explaining their rapid spread across the city include everything from public-hygiene concerns, to anti-adultery precautions imposed by once-powerful Roman Catholic clergy.

But despite their omnipresence, unknowing visitors to the city can easily miss these unusual works of craftsmanship.

The stairs, which spill from duplexes, triplexes and larger multiplexes in bedroom neighbourhoods, are usually found off the beaten tourist paths.

Those who know the stairways, however, see their S, Y and T shapes as distinct emblems of Montreal.

An online survey conducted by a local museum ranked them ahead of recognizable symbols including: the Olympic Stadium, the Montreal Canadiens hockey team, Old Montreal and the cross atop Mont Royal.

The staircases captured more than a third of the 3,000 votes cast for 37 Montreal symbols, says a spokeswoman for the Pointe-a-Calliere museum of archeology and history.

They edged the Olympic Stadium by about 20 votes, a victory that surprised museum staffers, Catherine Roberge said.

"We expected to see the Olympic Stadium a bit because it's a Montreal icon," said Roberge, who acknowledged the poll was geared for fun and not scientific accuracy.

"That people went with... something that is not necessarily a place or a site, but an image we see of Montreal, I think that's what is interesting."

The staircases, which lead up to small doorstep balconies, line streets in many boroughs, including the hip Plateau-Mont-Royal, the working-class Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and the monied Outremont. All these neighbourhoods are just outside the downtown core.

Their existence begs a question: How did outdoor stairways become popular in a city where harsh winters can transform such steep, winding steps into ice-coated safety hazards?

The exact explanation escapes many in the city, but experts believe it's likely due to a combination of factors.

Dinu Bumbaru, a director at Heritage Montreal, said the first exterior staircases appeared in the first half of the 19th century, a period when British builders imported similar patterns from places like Newcastle and Edinburgh.

He said more stairways popped up in the late 1800s during the city's population boom, which lured people to Montreal from rural areas.

Montreal's thickening density meant newcomers had little choice but to move into multi-level buildings. Many new citizens preferred abodes with individual doorways, so they could still enjoy the feel of the single-family country homes they had left behind.

Bumbaru said the fast expansion of the city also stirred up sanitation concerns. They are believed to be a reason why Montreal introduced regulations in the late 1800s to set new buildings back from the road, which slightly reduced the interior floor space.

So builders saved space by installing the stairways outside, with artisan-crafted steps, cornices and balconies stretching over the gap between the facades and the sidewalks.

Many of these staircases have since been splashed with another layer of artisanship: colour explosions from bright paint jobs and flower pots.

"This is the architectural grapevine of Montreal — it grows from the ground up," said Bumbaru, noting the array of designs, and in some cases colours, blend nicely in the cityscape.

"Sometimes harmony doesn't mean similarity, sometimes they are very different one to the other, but they communicate."

Other theories about their origins abound, including the cost savings of not having to heat an indoor stairway.

But there's a far more titillating explanation that is frequently bandied about by Montrealers. A popular hypothesis states that the construction of open-air staircases was encouraged by the Catholic church in order to limit privacy.

After all, an outdoor staircase would make it more difficult, for example, for the milkman or an unemployed neighbour to make an illicit visit to a housewife during the day.

Or so the legend goes. One local expert suspects the theory might have some truth to it — but he has yet to find documented proof.

Jacques Lachapelle, an architecture professor at Universite de Montreal, said that, as with so many other components of pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec, the church might have had an influence over Montreal's particular architecture.

The stairways, and adjoining balconies, have also snaked their way into literature, musical lyrics, plays and poems.

Lachapelle described them as semi-public spaces, where people hung around in full view of neighbours.

"It was like a theatre performance of the urban life that these balconies and these stairs allowed," he said.

But the stairways, which spread across the city until the 1930s, weren't popular with everyone.

Some criticisms compared them to unsightly ladders and others complained about their wintertime safety risks.

Bumbaru said the city reacted in the 1930s by modifying its regulations to ban the staircases from new buildings. He added that Montreal reversed the decision in the 1970s after people began to realize they had become icons of the city.

Today, Heritage Montreal fears the stairways are threatened by new construction, decay and a shortage of artisans to do the necessary repair work.

Bumbaru said some boroughs have passed bylaws to protect the staircases, but he questioned how many resources have been dedicated to inspections.

"Yes, of course," he replies when asked if he's worried about the future of the local landmarks.

"And regularly we get messages from our members or the general public expressing the same concern."

If You Go:

The staircases are found in many areas of the city, including Plateau-Mont-Royal, Hochelaga-Maisonnueve, Outremont, Villeray, Pointe-St-Charles, Rosemont, Ville-Emard and Verdun.

Montreal's subway system — or Metro — is an easy way to visit many of these neighbourhoods.

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