Royal Victoria Hospital falling silent on eve of new beginning
The Royal Victoria Hospital was created to be the best of the best, implementing the newest technology and medical practices of the late 19th century.
The imposing towers, the pavilion-style layout, the elevators: all were examples of the cutting edge, long before that term was used to describe modern technology.
Now, as the staff and patients at the Royal Victoria prepare to move to their new location at the Glen site, the hallways are growing silent, but the presence of history is still felt.
Dr. Jonathan Meakins is a third-generation doctor whose father and grandfather both worked at the RVH .
Meakins is now retired from his medical practice, but remains connected to the hospital as the Director of the MUHC's Art and Heritage Centre.
"It's a heritage edifice, it's symbolic in many respects of the city and its history," said Meakins.
To this day, at the main entrance of the hospital, the original crest is set into the floor, displaying the date the hospital opened its doors for the very first time.
"That space is still exactly the same as it was when it was constructed," said Meakins, although the original sweeping staircase was replaced in the 1950s.
The Royal Victoria Hospital's opening ceremony took place in December of 1893, with the Governor General presiding over the affair and noting that the two men who donated the one million dollars necessary to build and fund the hospital were nowhere to be seen.
Sir George Stephen, the Baron Mount Stephen, was in London, but SIr Donald Alexander, the Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, was in the back of the room, standing unrecognized.
Just six years earlier the two men had pledged a fortune of $1,000,000 to build the finest hospital in Canada as a tribute to Queen Victoria on her Golden Jubilee.
They quickly rounded up a Board of Governors that included former Mayor of Montreal John Abbott, and in a matter of months were able to get land donated on the side of Mount Royal -- and to get Royal Assent to their plan.
The architect for the RVH was none other than Henry Saxon Snell, a renowned medical architect who had several other hospitals under his belt.
"The Royal Vic was very closely modeled on the Royal Infirmary at Edinburgh and of course the Scottish influence is very strong in both the architecture and in the medical history of the institution," said McGill historian Annmarie Adams.
"It was designed by Henry Saxon Snell, a really well-known British hospital specialist and in fact the Royal Vic looks a lot like buildings by Snell in England and Scotland."
Fresh air and luxury
The idea behind the Royal Vic was to create a pavilion, somewhat akin to a rest home, where patients could be exposed to fresh air away from the city.
The main wards were, initially, designed to hold dozens of patients in one great room.
Each wing faced south, with plenty of windows for exposure to daylight, and those windows were always open, even in winter.
"The big idea of the pavilion plan was that the patients would be flushed with fresh air at all times of year so it was very cool in the winter. We know this because there are many many photographs taken of the Royal Vic during Christmas parties and the windows are always open," said Adams.
One of the earliest additions was the Ross Memorial Pavilion which was designed as more of an exotic retreat than anything we would consider a hospital today.
"People were invited to bring their servants, so there were servants quarters. The dining room was considered particularly splendid. People would come and eat there even if they weren't visiting someone at the hospital. In the back there was a beautiful formal garden. There was ambulance parking and delivery by automobile. It was like a luxury hotel," said Adams.
There were great expectations for the hospital even as construction was just beginning.
In 1891, an article in the Montreal Gazette described the hospital in glowing terms.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that when ready to receive the afflicted, the Royal Victoria in appointments and general arrangements will have no rival in its particular sphere of usefulness on the continent of America."
The imposing baronial style, found so often in architecture of the day, is ripped straight from Scotland.
"The founders wanted it to look like a Scottish hospital, and in fact it really does look like a Scottish chateau. It's sometimes referred to as Scottish Baronial style because it looks like a baron might live there," said Adams.
The director of the School of Architecture at McGill said many people don't realize that the walls of the Royal Vic are high-tech -- but contain no steel.
"They're very, very thick and they are what we call load-bearing stone walls, so there is no steel in them. They are holding up the weight of the building," said Adams.
Big move on Sunday
But now, after 122 years, the Royal Victoria is moving on.
"When you go forward you have to leave something behind," said Meakins.
As boxes are packed, hallways are emptied, and old furniture is tossed, generations of staff and volunteers are saying goodbye with mixed emotions.
"I feel very... not sad, but nostalgic and yes, I have good memories. It's part of my home. You feel at home here," said Elisabeth Langenbrach.
Ninety-one years old, she has been volunteering at the Royal Vic for more than 40 years.
Nevine Fateen, the manager of volunteers, said it's a bittersweet moment.
"We're thrilled to actually be able to work at the Glen. Such a new, high-tech institution and hospital, and to serve our patients finally at this crisp new building, but it's a bit bittersweet like I was saying. We're also leaving this hospital," said Fateen.
The big move, the largest in Canadian history, begins before dawn on Sunday, April 26, 2015.