In 1869, after a decade of toying with the idea of creating a park on Mount Royal, the City of Montréal began the process of acquiring the land to achieve its vision. The land purchase alone cost Montréal the equivalent of close to a full year’s budget. The City Council then went straight to Frederick Law Olmsted, the most prominent landscape architect in North America at the time, to ask him to design the project.
At first, Olmsted was not interested due to other commitments. But Montréal officials persisted and, finally, in 1874, Olmsted came to visit.
Inspired by the promise of Mount Royal, with its rugged, varied topography and extraordinary views, Olmsted agreed to take on the project. This was to become the first park that Olmsted designed after the dissolution of his partnership with Calvert Vaux and marked the beginning of a lengthy involvement between the Olmsted Firm and Canadian clients.
Olmsted claimed that as a location, Mount Royal was “the best opportunity […] that had ever been presented to my profession.” He designed a circulation system that would give visitors—including those in wheelchairs—access to an extended landscape experience. His plan was to emphasize the mountainous topography through the use of exaggerated vegetation. As park-goers would make their way up the mountain, the vegetation would become sparser creating an illusion of amplified height.
Faced with an economic depression in the mid-1870s, Montréal municipal authorities rushed park construction in the dead of winter. The result was a disappointment to Olmsted who expressed his deep irritation with the lack of consideration for his vision. This fueled the wide publication of his most compelling texts about the power of scenery and designed landscape on the human spirit. His statements have served to guide the conscious efforts of generations of Montréalers to protect the mountain from urban encroachment.
Though Olmsted’s design for Mount Royal Park was never fully executed, the Park opened in 1876 and people have flocked to the mountain ever since to enjoy the restorative power of nature. The undeniable beauty of this Olmstedian masterpiece and its key function within the community have placed Mount Royal at the heart of Montréal’s economic, civic and cultural development.
For almost a century and a half, Olmsted’s grand vision for the mountain and his impassioned words about nature at the heart of the city have inspired citizens, civil servants and political leaders to uphold his legacy. Mount Royal Park remains the crowning jewel of Montréal’s mountain which, as a Quebec government-designated heritage site since 2005, benefits from measures intended specifically to protect the integrity of its unique cultural and natural heritage.
For more information on Mount Royal’s history, culture, and conservation efforts, visit Les amis de la montagne.
For more information about the Olmsted Firm’s work in Canada, see “The Olmsted Firm in Canada,” The Master List of Design Projects.