Cel­e­brat­ing a 100 year old city land­mark

Montreal Times - - News - By Ser­gio Martinez mtl­times.ca

When it fin­ished its last ad­di­tion in 1933, the Sun Life Build­ing was the tallest in the whole British Empire.The his­tory of this fa­mous Mon­treal land­mark, how­ever, had started al­most a cou­ple of decades ear­lier, in 1914 when the Sun Life As­sur­ance Com­pany of Canada de­cided to move its head­quar­ters from the then fi­nan­cial dis­trict in what is now Old Mon­treal, to what would be­come the city cen­tre. The build­ing was of­fi­cially opened in 1918, and this Wed­nes­day the cen­ten­nial of the iconic struc­ture was cel­e­brated with a spe­cial mes­sage from the Cana­dian Her­itage Min­is­ter Pablo Ro­driguez, speeches from Sun Life Fi­nan­cial Pres­i­dent Jac­ques Goulet and Ben­tall Kennedy VicePres­i­dent Mon­treal Re­gion, Yves-An­dré Godon, a do­na­tion to Cen­traide, and an il­lus­tra­tive visit to the com­pany`s vaults guided by Alexan­der Ven­ditti, from Her­itage Mon­treal.

The Cana­dian Her­itage Min­is­ter un­der­lined the im­por­tant role played by Sun Life in Canada and Que­bec,

as the valu­able con­tri­bu­tion the build­ing has made to the Mon­treal land­scape.The Sun Life ex­ec­u­tives for their part em­pha­sized the his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance of the build­ing as well as its cur­rent rel­e­vance, in par­tic­u­lar, they told us how the struc­ture has been adapted to the new de­mands re­gard­ing en­ergy ef­fi­ciency. “This is the first cen­te­nary build­ing to achieve the sil­ver cer­ti­fi­ca­tion” they re­marked. In fact, the Sun Life Build­ing has been given many im­por­tant awards in re­cent years. The Boma Award, His­tor­i­cal Build­ing of the Year in 2012. In 2013 the Com­mer­cial Her­itage Award. In 2014 the LEED Sil­ver Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in the Cat­e­gory of Ex­ist­ing Build­ings – Op­er­a­tions and Main­te­nance, in 2015 the BOMA Award Best Cus­tomer Ser­vice, and this year the 2018 TOBY Award, His­tor­i­cal Build­ing of the Year, the Wired Score, which is a prize for con­nec­tiv­ity, and the BOMA BEST Plat­inum Award for en­vi­ron­men­tal per­for­mance.

Be­yond the distinc­tions awarded to this sig­nif­i­cant land­scape in down­town Mon­treal, what is per­haps the most im­por­tant is all the his­tory that`s hid­den within the walls of this neo­clas­sic struc­ture sit­u­ated in front of Dorch­ester Square and fac­ing the Mary Queen of the World Cathe­dral on its south side.At the peak of its op­er­a­tions when the cen­tral wing of the build­ing was added in 1933, it could ac­com­mo­date 10,000 peo­ple. As new tech­nolo­gies were in­tro­duced, the work­force started to be re­duced. One sig­nif­i­cant stage in the op­er­a­tions of the com­pany was the ac­qui­si­tion of its first com­puter in 1958, a Uni­vac which needed a space of 22 thou­sand sq. feet! Com­par­a­tively, the op­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity of a smart­phone to­day is a thou­sand times that of the com­pany`s first com­puter. As the com­pany`s work­force di­min­ished, parts of the build­ing started to be rented out, a trend that con­tin­ues un­til to­day.

Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal de­tails have to do with the role played by Sun Life dur­ing World War II: its vaults served to keep the United King­dom for­eign mar­ketable se­cu­ri­ties, val­ued at 5 bil­lion, which were se­cretly trans­ported through the At­lantic in what was co­de­named "Op­er­a­tion Fish." The se­cu­ri­ties ar­rived in Hal­i­fax, and from there they were moved by train to Ot­tawa and Mon­treal. The valu­able doc­u­ments were kept in a safe room in the 3rd base­ment level, which now no longer ex­ists be­cause it was con­verted into a park­ing space. The en­trance to the vault then was guarded day and night by an RCMP of­fi­cer. There were ru­mours that then the Royal Fam­ily had also sent here the British Crown Jew­els, but ac­cord­ing to our guide at the vault visit, that was an ur­ban leg­end.

An­other sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture of this build­ing was the in­stal­la­tion of a car­il­lon which Sun Life bought af­ter Expo `67 and which worked well un­til 1998 when it was ir­repara­bly dam­aged by the ice storm that hit Mon­treal that win­ter. To­day you can still hear car­il­lon mu­sic, as well the 12 strokes at noon, com­ing from speak­ers on the 11th and 26th floors, but those sounds are pro­duced elec­tron­i­cally.

And I can­not fin­ish this piece with­out a ref­er­ence to one of the most un­usual ten­ants in the build­ing: a cou­ple of pere­grine fal­cons set their nests in the build­ing in 1936, and their descen­dants con­tin­ued liv­ing there un­til 1952. By then, the use of pes­ti­cides had made them dis­ap­pear, al­though, with the ban­ning of those toxic prod­ucts, pere­grine fal­cons have been spot­ted again since the 1980s.

The im­pos­ing Sun Life Build­ing has turned 100

Vaults very sim­i­lar to these safely kept British for­eignmar­ketable se­cu­ri­ties dur­ing World War II

To mark the 100th an­niver­say of the build­ing, Sun Life do­nated 100,000 to Cen­traide,Caro­line Bougie thanked the do­na­tion

Alexan­der Ven­ditti, from Her­itage Mon­treal gaveus a guided tour of the vaults and its se­crets

The vaults are now her­itage

Above: Her­itage Min­is­ter Pablo Ro­driguez sent a video mes­sage from Ot­tawa Left:These gi­ant tools were nec­es­sary for the op­er­a­tion of the vaults

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