Public washrooms make comeback in Montreal, 85 years after Camillien Houde's make-work initiative

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Among the great running battles between progressives and conservatives in Montreal over the past 150 years has been  the question of whether denizens should be able to relieve themselves in public. 

The forces of progress scored a victory Tuesday evening when, at a Ville-Marie borough council meeting, Mayor Denis Coderre pushed ahead with a plan to build a dozen public washrooms downtown.

Not since the late 1970s has the city had a functioning public toilet downtown. 

One of Coderre's predecessors, Jean Drapeau, closed them — ostensibly as part of a cost-cutting measure. But there may have been moral reasons at play as well. 

Drapeau, infamously, had hundreds of trees razed on Mount Royal, to discourage the mountain from being used as a site for illicit sexual encounters.

Similar suspicions may have been involved in his decision to shut the public toilets.

City officials, moreover, were concerned that some restrooms — such as the one underneath Place-d'Armes — were being used as gambling dens. 

Montreal's golden age of public toilets

The closures marked the end of an era, the veritable golden age of public restrooms in Montreal. 

In the late 19th century, the absence of city toilets become something of a polemic, a common topic of letters to Montreal newspapers, according to Nicolas Kenny's book The Feel of the City: Experiences of Urban Transformation. 

Louis Laberge, a long-ago director of the Montreal health bureau, remarked in 1885 that this oversight reflected poorly on the city's reputation. Of the world's great cities, he wrote, only Montreal was without public washrooms. 

"It is well known that men are compelled to patronize restaurants and saloons in order to have a chance to relieve themselves," Laberge wrote in his Report on the Sanitary State of the City of Montreal for the Year 1910.

Finally, in 1913, the city opened the first of its "comfort stations" in Place Jacques-Cartier.

No mere pissoir, these public washrooms were designed to resemble "miniature palaces" and convey Montreal's status as a modern metropolis, Kenny writes in his book.

They served as information stations, places where you could get your shoes shined or even place a telephone call. 

Houde's camilliennes

But arguably the most memorable of Montreal's public toilets were the camilliennes, so named for the mayor who ordered their construction, Camillien Houde.

With the Depression in full swing, Houde had a series of restrooms built as a public-works project. He quipped that the project would provide the unemployed with "two kinds of relief."

Designed by art-deco architect Jean-Omer Marchand, they were found in key locations around the city, such as Place-d'Armes, and Victoria and Viger squares. 

The sovereignist intellectual Jacques Ferron considered it a stroke of genius to locate one under the statue of King Edward VII in Phillips Square. What more symbolic way, he wrote, to express Quebecers' sentiments about the Crown. 

Many of these palaces to our basic functions have since been transformed and now serve other needs.  

The camillienne in Cabot Square has become the Café Roundhouse. The ice cream parlour in St. Louis Square was once the camillienne located in Viger Square.

Opening up public space

The models that Montreal will build this time around aren't likely to be as opulent as those of yesteryear. But they will be self-cleaning, cutting down on maintenance costs. In all, Ville-Marie is allotting $3.6 million for the project. 

More importantly, though, they will help democratize the city's public spaces.

As severalobservers have pointed out, the presence of toilets makes urban space more comfortable for those who have limited control of their bladder or intestines, such as the elderly or people with diabetes.

Think, too, of pregnant women or the homeless, or, well, any of us, all of whom have to go at some point or another.

A small measure, perhaps, but one that reduces some of the anxiety that comes with being in public, allowing the city to be shared more widely.