Walking through Cabot Square you may have spotted this unusual octagonal building that could almost pass as a shrine or even tiny palace. But the only thrones you’d have ever see in this vespasienne were of the porcelain variety. But their stall doors to these public washrooms have slammed shut for the last time and the structures that remain serve as a reminder of this essential public service the city once provided.
The vespasiennes were constructed in the 1930s during the long mayoral reign of Camillien Houde, who displayed something of a penchant for public works projects. The vespasiennes – which many considered an extravagant expense – were dubbed ‘Camilliennes’. Found now in Carré St. Louis and Dorchester Square, they have morphed smoothly into an ice cream and even an entrance to an underground parking garage.
The vespasienne was popularized in Paris in the 1800s, but its roots extend back to the Roman Empire, when Emperor Vespasien sought to provide tanners and dyers with ammonia collected from the city dwellers’ urine. The legacy of Roman architecture lives on in the Corinthian columns and cornices which the designers of these modern vespasiennes sought to imitate. While these elegant washrooms appear to be built from cut stone, they have a distinctly modern twist: built with pre-fabricated concrete blocks, these buildings could be simply assembled by city works crews.
While providing a little historical trivia, the vespasiennes also raise questions about the city’s responsibility in providing public restroom facilities; and as anyone who has strolled the fragrant alleyways of almost any Montreal neighbourhood can attest, the city is definitely not in the washroom business any longer. According to public officials, the cost of cleaning and concerns about intravenous drug usage is largely to blame for this shift, but, bizarrely, health concerns over sanitation don’t seem to figure into this equation.
While Vancouver is going ahead with eight self-cleaning public washrooms and the subject is beginning again to be addressed by planners in Europe and China, there appears to be no movement here in Montreal. In New York, for example, a website rating the city’s public washrooms has brought this oft taboo subject to the fore. Perhaps we ought to have a little toilet talk – no potty language, please – about the state of our public washrooms.