When you first get off the elevators at the fourth floor of Menzies Lawyers offices at 176
Gloucester Street in the City of Ottawa you will notice antique oak doors marking the
boundaries between the reception area and the areas where support staff and lawyers
toil. The doors were previously installed at the Menzies & Associates law offices at
111 Sherwood Drive. Before that, they came from a triplex that Mr. Menzies owned on
Hutchison Street in Outremont, an inner division of Mr. Menzies’ native Montreal.
The doors come with a story. Here is that story.
Many years ago, when my first marriage ended and what had been the communal
arcadia, the farm Lothlorien, east of Sawyerville in the Eastern Townships, had to be
sold to settle up, I moved back to my native city of Montreal with my five year old son,
Adam, to a basement, one bedroom on the corner of St. Urbain and Mont Royal. We
moved from 220 acres to 220 square feet. It was a shock. To go from the vast silence
and the endless scouring sweep of the movement of air from breeze to gale to the
frantic twenty four hour noise and acrid fumes of the inner city hurt. The loss of light
and the replacement of the rhythms of day and season to the darkness of noon and the
omnipresent steel brightness of electric light brought a deep sense of disease.
The evolution of our home base in my five year stay in Montreal, like a sunflower, was
towards space and light, west and up. The first move was to a two bedroom, ground
level flat one street west and one block north, on leafy and quieter L’Esplanade. The
apartment itself was run down and needed an injection of TLC. Quebec at the time
had exemplary tenant protection legislation. I knew that if I spent the time and effort
to make the flat livable, I couldn’t be disturbed in my right to renew unless the owners
gave notice that they wished to move in themselves. So I asked the agent who showed
me the apartment, who reassured me that I had nothing to worry about –“the absentee
owners moved to Toronto ten years ago and will never return”. So I rented the flat,
undertook the renovations, painted it white throughout, planted gardens in the front and
back, and built a play area on the side porch and sideyard off the kitchen.
The absentee landlords sold. The Portuguese who were moving into that area and
replacing the older Jewish population that had been there since before the War were
particularly attracted to six unit buildings like mine. The Portuguese family who bought
toured all six units, selected mine as the nicest, and gave me notice that as new owners
they would not renew my lease and would take over my apartment. A year after moving
in, we had to move again.
In the meantime the people who had bought the farm paid off the vendor mortgage
back and I had money for a downpayment. So I went looking and bought a triplex on
Hutchison Street, on the very edge of Outremont.
French Outremont, like its English counterpart, Westmount, is an eclectic mix of row
housing like Hutchison Street, quiet neighbourhoods of duplexes and the grand houses
that lined Cote St. Catherine, south of that and up the slopes of the mountain until the
park and cemeteries that claimed the crown, with the houses of the very rich with the
garages buried in the side of the mountain, electronic gates and twelve hour a day
servants. Everywhere there were parks, and within five blocks of my new home, three –
one with a serpentine pond which became a skating rink in the winter, one with a huge
fountain and ornamental pool and a big children’s playground and one with a smaller
fountain, ringed by enormous trees which, in the summer, was a perfect oasis of quiet
and green calm.
Hutchison, between Bernard and Van Horne, was the first of six streets running parallel
to Park Avenue, with duplexes or triplexes running in solid rows, with mitoyen walls
running from one cross street to another. They were almost all built in the early 1900s,
just before or just after the First World War. The lots are 25 feet by 100, and the
buildings occupy the full width, with common walls, and typically 60 to 75 feet of the
depth, front to back. The front yard is tiny – the building set back at most 20 feet, and
in some cases 15 feet from the sidewalk. The front yard of the houses on the east side
of the street (on Hutchison – that’s part of Montreal) get afternoon sun and can grow
gardens. Those on the west or Outremont side, such as 5860-62-64 Hutchison Street
grow scraggly grass or moss. In my case I had a mature maple which arched out over
the street, and its crown towered above the parapet enclosing the flat roof, three storeys
All the houses featured broad steps leading up to a front porch or landing with side by
side doors. Mine was typical. Standing at the street to your left was a double door
leading into the ground floor flat (5860). To its right was a single door (5862) leading to
an interior flight of stairs that led up to the second floor flat. To the right of that was yet
another, identical door (5864) leading to an identical set of stairs, but this time leading
up and up and then angling off to the left – 38 stairs leading to the third floor. On the
other side of the street, Montreal permitted outdoor staircases front and back. Up and
down the street you saw the twists and turns of wrought iron staircases.
These doors were original equipment – solid oak, stained a honey colour that had
darkened to amber with a half century of outdoor exposure. They were a generous
seven feet in height, three feet in width and featured a central beveled glass panel that,
itself, must have been nearly two feet wide and five feet high. Big old brass knobs
with a deadlock key lock above, and a mail slot below the door glass completed the
When I bought from the elderly Chinese couple next door, they said that I should deal
with the tenants directly. None of them had leases, but all had been there for a long
time. The students in the middle apartment (three girls going to McGill) were going their
separate ways – two were graduating and one was moving in with a friend. They were
happy to confirm that they would be leaving as of what was then the universal moving
day in Montreal, July 1st. Then the music major, who was not graduating, broke up
with her boyfriend, with whom she was going to move in, found other students to share
the apartment and announced, three weeks before moving day, that she was staying.
There was nothing I could do except cast around for a last minute alternative. I had
already bought the triplex.
I managed to find a top floor flat of a duplex on Jean Mance with hardwood floors,
large windows and lots of light. When, later that winter, the couple in the top floor of
Hutchison broke up, with the wife moving out and the husband unable to pay the rent,
they asked for permission to break the lease and I sublet Jean Mance and moved in to
As part of the renovations we undertook that summer, we tore up the old wooden
enclosed back stairs and put in an open, wrought iron, spiral fire escape. We had the
iron worker add to that a ladder bolted on to the brick exterior of the back of the building
that permitted the third floor access to the roof from the back balcony. From there you
could see for miles. It was like being on the prairies. All the houses were the same
height or lower. Only trees and hydro poles stood above the sea of flat roofs, and even
those were barely higher. Church towers and spires stood higher, but on the scale of
the vast sweep of sky, these were minor embellishments on the near horizon. Miles
away to the south, the bulk of Mount Royal interrupted the view of most of downtown
and continued on the ridge to the west. We could make out the stylized architecture
of the University of Montreal, and beyond that the dome of the Sanctuary. In the far
east, the curves and tower of the Olympic Stadium were clearly visible, particularly lit
up at night. The cross as well, on the eastern end of the mountain, facing down river
to welcome the sailors and immigrants home, was a constant fixture of the night time
And there, for the first time in the City, you had a sense of the interaction of the land and
sky, and the movement of masses of air. With the exception of late afternoon summer
stillness, or the rare, crystal clear winter morning, the air was never still. There was
always at least the susurration of movement, or the breath of a breeze to wobble the
broad leaves of the maple. Standing on that flat roof, sheltering behind the row of brick
chimneys, and watching the line of an approaching thunderstorm, like some First World
War creeping artillery barrage, tear open the sky with lightning and the boom of thunder
all around while the black sky boiled and the fat raindrops flew horizontally, you felt
nature in your bones and your face. The part of your soul which resembles a yew tree
opens up and drinks it in.
When I was accepted to McGill law school, admissions asked if I wanted entry into
common law or civil. I didn’t know the difference and said so. “Common law” means
you practice everywhere in Canada or the States except Quebec and Louisiana.
“Civil law” means you stay here. That was the Spring of 1977 and thousands of other
Quebecers, voting not for separatism but for a change from the venal and the arrogant
Liberals, had voted in the Parti Quebecois. For years my family had been pulling
up roots and moving as the occasion and opportunity presented. “Common law” I
said. So in 1980, Norma, Angus and I moved to Ottawa. It was not without many a
backward glance. Both Norma and I had family and roots in Montreal and continued
(and continue now) to go back often. The top floor, once renovated, was a gem – full
of light, within easy walking distance of the parks, the patisserie, the souvlaki place…..
We kept it because selling it would maroon us in Ottawa. So long as we had it we
could plan a return there. As the family grew in number and children starting attending
school and forming friendships of their own the plans became more distant and unreal.
Retirement perhaps, or after the children had gone.
It was not a burden to look after. The renovations were extensive and all the systems
modern and functional. The open floor plan, with the huge kitchens, the pillars and the
sliding glass doors leading out to the rear decks were popular. The tenants looked after
their own utilities and services, and my duties were restricted to once in the Fall coming
down to start up the furnaces and look after Fall and Winter maintenance and once in
the Spring to look after Spring clean up and to shut the heating systems down.
I never had to worry about finding tenants. Typically, the way I knew someone was
leaving was that I would get a phone call from some complete stranger who would say
that they knew so and so on the ground floor, middle floor or top floor who was leaving
and they had already seen the apartment, knew what the rent was and were prepared
to provide references and wanted the place very much indeed.
And in this easy progression of years, I do not now know when the incidents of this
story occurred. All I remember is the phone call at two o’clock in the morning from
the Outremont police, coming down to Montreal that weekend and piecing the story
together from the police, the neighbours and the tenants themselves.
The story begins when a man who lived on the top floor, whose common law
relationship is going badly, arrives home from an evening of drowning his jealousies
and sorrows in beer, at two o’clock in the morning. He fumbles with his key at the door,
but although he can get the key in, it won’t turn left or right. With growing incredulity he
realizes his witch of a wife has changed the locks on him. Incredulity quickly yields to
rage – he jabs his finger repeatedly at the doorbell and then pounds on the door itself
for good measure. Eventually a light comes on upstairs and a sleepy female voice is
heard to inquire:
“Que voulez-vous?” (What do you want?).
Followed moments later by a deeper, male voice “Va’t’en” (Go away).
The man is beside himself with anger. Not only has his witch of a wife changed the
locks, she has the nerve to move her new boyfriend in, and the new boyfriend is acting
like the king of the castle and telling him, the master of the household, to go away. He
clomps down the broad steps to the sidewalk and then turns and yells for her to present
herself, to explain what is happening, calling her every pejorative in the book, in a bull
roar of a voice that has the neighbours’ lights clicking on one by one and others coming
out onto their balconies. Eventually the wife, bundled up in a housecoat, appears on
the balcony and tells him to be quiet or he will wake the neighbours (too late for that
– more and more are coming out on the balconies all the time). Even worse, the new
boyfriend comes out and puts his arm possessively around his wife, raises his fist and
threatens to come down and thrash the husband.
This is too much. Apoplectic with rage, he storms up the steps again and attacks the
door with his fist. When that proves futile, he descends the steps again, casts around
and then extracts a brick from the border of the tiny garden beside the walkway, rushes
back up the steps and with a mighty heave hurls the brick through the beveled glass of
Well, if the neighbours weren’t awake by now they certainly were for this. Lights are
going on up and down the street. People are coming out on to the street shouting
encouragement and calling out to each other to see if anyone has called the police
(several have) and offering gratuitous advice to the poor couple on the third floor.
Meanwhile, the husband, having triumphantly broken in, reaches through the broken
glass and opens the deadlock and then the door. Screeching in triumph and bellowing
his challenge to the interloper, he charges his way up the thirty-eight stairs.
Belligerent boyfriend, in the meantime, casting caution and the gratuitous advice of the
neighbours to the winds, himself utters cries of challenge and invitation to the fisticuff
duel, tears open the door at the top of the stairs and thumps his way down. The wife,
shrieking at both of them, follows. The two assailants meet and grapple half way up the
stairs, and then tumble, punching and grappling with each other, down the stairs. At
that point, two police cars from either end of the street converge, one touching his siren
to wake up the few remaining deep sleepers or the deaf, and both with their roof lights
twinkling. The police officers tackle the combatants and separate them.
Turns out the tenant was one street over from his home. He had the right street
number, but the wrong street. Apparently it was the third floor female tenant (the
unfaithful wife in his mind) who was able to produce an envelope addressed to herself
that finally broke through to him. The fact he didn’t recognize the third floor male tenant
was, of course, not surprising to him, but when the woman who lived there was clearly
not his wife, the rays of comprehension broke through the darker clouds of a troubled
mind fuddled by fatigue, drink and the afterwash of strong emotion.
He was very contrite. Even apart from the fact that he had to pay the civil
consequences of his mistake in order to have the criminal charges of assault, disturbing
the peace, break and enter and forcible entry diverted into a resolution that would
not leave him with a serious criminal record the rest of his life, it was obvious that he
was mortified that he had made a mistake of this magnitude, had assaulted a couple
blissfully sleeping the sleep of the law-abiding, and had disturbed the quiet tranquility
of our street. He was embarrassed too. He had made a very public spectacle of his
unhappiness with his marriage and I suspect the story was making the rounds and had
got back to his wife.
Beveled glass of this size and thickness is not cheap. He paid to have the glass cut,
beveled and installed but the tenants were now, understandably, nervous. These
beautiful antique doors clearly gave something away in terms of security. So I
canvassed with each set of tenants whether they wished me to change the whole set
across the front with modern steel insulated doors with remote control door unlockers
(so they didn’t have to descend 38 stairs to open the door when a friend arrived) with a
miniscule fan light at the top and a peep hole at eye height to permit someone inside to
look over someone outside – the kind of door that a drunk could throw bricks at all night
without doing more than denting it – they all said yes.
Which is why I have, gracing my office and another, and a board room in our law offices
in Ottawa, hundred year old, golden amber oak doors with large beveled glass panels.
If you are ever stuck in one of these rooms, bring your own brick.
Tel: 613.722.1313 Fax: 613.722.4712 firstname.lastname@example.org
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