Celebrating a 100 year old city landmark
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