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Guardian of the city’s past

by Donna Nebenzahl

Photo by Vincenzo d’Alto

Architect Julia Gersovitz’s admiration for authentic buildings that tell our city’s story is evident in her restoration work

For Julia Gersovitz, Montreal has always been a city that contains multitudes. Growing up in N.D.G. in an artistic and intellectual family, the acclaimed restoration architect was surrounded by a thriving cultural life. “We would go to plays and museums and art shows,” she says.

Starting at 3 years of age until she was 16, Gersovitz and her siblings took art classes every saturday morning at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. “Our teacher was Arthur Lismer, who was quite old at the

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time,” she recalls of the famous Group of Seven artist. “He had created these Saturday morning classes for kids, and even if you didn’t know who he was, you understood that he had remarkable power.”

Montreal in the 1950s was uplifted by artistic and cultural enthusiasm, she recalls. “We had marvelous teachers. You didn’t realize you felt it because you were a kid, but looking back you could see this was authentic stuff.”

She spent time as a child at the Redpath Museum, where the collections were endlessly fascinating. “What a treasure that building is,” she says. “It’s so full of architectural

delight that every time you go there, you get another appreciation of what the architects were doing.”

Built in the 1880s and considered a fine example of Greek Revival architecture, the building goes beyond the label. “A

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Greek temple doesn’t have this sense of being drenched with light,” she says. “When you walk in and go up the stairs you feel that you are entering a temple of learning. You feel more significant, more important, you know that you’re about to participate in a experience that is not mundane.”

At the back of the Redpath, to bring more light into the gaslit interior, a band of windows were inserted all the way around. “It’s a wonderful, really powerful building,” she says.

By the time Expo 67 was unveiled in Montreal, 15-year-old Gersovitz was already looking in another direction, architecturally speaking. “It had an enormous impact, but for me it was so futuristic. That was not my path,” she says. She chose the profession because her mother was an artist of some renown, and her father was a structural engineer. “He felt that architecture would meld my artistic ability and mathematical mind, because I was extremely good in math and science,

and I was able to draw.”

She was also looking for a way to explore the social history and cultural artifacts in buildings, and was the first person at McGill to do a thesis on how you would take warehouse buildings, for instance, and turn them into apartments. “My professor had to decide whether working with an existing building and changing its function was acceptable,” she recalls. “This kind of work wasn’t being done in Canada, and in fact that’s what’s happened everywhere in Old Montreal.”

But even though she loved the city and earned her architecture degree at McGill University, Gersovitz went against the grain and left Canada to follow her interests. “It wasn’t considered normal to start wandering around the way people do now,” she says, “but at that time, and really to this day, there are not many opportunities for people doing masters in architectural conservation. So I went to New York and did the degree at Columbia between 1978 and 1980.”

She was in good company. Save Montreal had been created in the wake of the destruction of the famed Van Horne Mansion and the threats – many of them realized – to a number of heritage buildings. “Before I left to do my masters, I was very involved in Save Montreal,” she says.