Photographer Brian Merrett fought to preserve Montreal’s architectural gems

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A 1973 self-portrait of Brian Merrett inside Shaughnessy House, one of the many heritage buildings he photographed.Brian Merrett/Handout

Brian Merrett was a photographer and activist who became deeply involved in not only recording Montreal’s architecture but in preserving it. His work helped save the building that became the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). He lived up the road from the old Shaughnessy House, named after one of the early presidents of the Canadian Pacific Railway. At the time, the building was occupied by an order of nuns. Mr. Merrett knew they were going to abandon the building and that it probably would be torn down for development.

“He talked the nuns into letting him take photos inside the building,” his wife, Lucinda Lyman, said. He discovered the building when parts of his downtown Montreal neighbourhood were torn down for roadwork.

“In 1972 and 1973, after the transformation of my own street into a motorway exit ramp – which had made my parking space disappear – my monthly visits to the nuns’ house, which now housed my car, encouraged me to produce photographic documentation which ultimately prevented the demolition of this house,” Mr. Merrett said.

Mr. Merrett approached Phyllis Lambert, a member of the wealthy Bronfman family, and showed her the photographs. Ms. Lambert, an architect and promoter of architectural causes, bought the Shaughnessy mansion in 1974 and transformed it into the CCA.

“This is how I became active in Save Montreal, and in 1975, I was invited to be part of the founding board of Heritage Montreal. For these two organizations, I prepared numerous photographs of threatened buildings,” said Mr. Merrett, who died on Sept. 21 at his home in North Hatley, at the age of 78.

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Brian Merrett was born on July 29, 1945, in Saint John, N.B. His father, John Campbell Merrett, was there working on an urban plan for Saint John. He was a prominent architect whose work included the Art Deco interior of Central Station in Montreal. Brian grew up in Senneville, a semi-rural suburb at the western tip of Montreal and was influenced by his father’s architectural ideas.

His first camera was a 35 mm, which he won in a Popsicle contest when he was 12. He became an avid photographer, and his first professional job was in 1969, photographing the Bank of Montreal building for his father’s firm.

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Mr. Merrett died on Sept. 21 at his home in North Hatley at the age of 78.Lucinda Lyman/Handout

In Montreal, the 1970s were a time of rampant destruction of older buildings. Mr. Merrett was involved in organizations to save landmarks such as Windsor Station, the 19th-century Canadian Pacific Railway headquarters, which the company wanted to tear down. That campaign was a success, and he photographed not only the station but the neighbourhood around it, which is now almost all changed, replaced with high-rise towers, though the station itself remains.

The fight to save the Van Horne mansion, named after another builder of the CPR, was a failure. Mr. Merrett photographed the razing of the Van Horne building in Montreal by the real estate developer David Azrieli in September, 1973. Witnessing the demolition of heritage buildings in the city transformed Mr. Merrett from a photographer to an activist.

“I think I spent my youth at protests and gallery openings,” said his son, Toby Merrett, who says some of his father’s most important work lives on in the books he published,

The first book he published was in 1987, Mansions of the Golden Square Mile, Montreal, 1850-1930, in conjunction with François Rémillard, who wrote the text. The Golden Square Mile was where the Montreal establishment lived in the late 19th century and the start of the 20th. The two men collaborated on several books, most, though not all, concerned with Montreal heritage architecture. Their last book, on the great houses of Quebec City, came out in October, 2022.

The McCord Stewart Museum in Montreal is cataloguing thousands of Mr. Merrett’s photographs, which he donated to the institution.

“Brian has done so much for the safeguarding of Montreal’s architectural heritage and helping people, through the books that he published, and through his more artistic photographs of Montreal architecture and helping people appreciate the beauty of what surrounds them,” said Zoe Tousignant, the curator of photography at the McCord. “His work is a record of the urban fabric of Montreal as it was evolving.”

Mr. Merrett was the staff photographer at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for many years. His job there involved taking photographs at exhibitions but also of individual works of art, something that is a unique talent, says Stéphane Aquin, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

“There’s really a lot of knowledge, technique and sensitivity that goes into photographing objects. Paintings can come out as flat or not, depending on the lighting. Same with sculptures and silverware,” Mr. Aquin said.

But Mr. Merrett’s architectural photography is what he will be remembered for.

“Brian is one of the great photographers of Montreal’s evolution and changes over the years,” Mr. Aquin said. “He would be at the top of the list with people like William Notman. Through Notman, we have a sense of what Montreal was at a certain time and through Brian Merrett, we have a sense of how Montreal changed and a sense of the city’s memory and a sense of the city’s past and present taken from his viewpoint. He left us and future generations a record of how we were and how we have changed.”

Taking a straight picture of a tall building is difficult, and Mr. Merrett had specially adapted lenses to eliminate the height distortion. In his regular work, he used 35mm cameras and a larger format Hasselblad, the camera the astronauts took to the moon. To capture works of art, he often used an even larger-format camera on a tripod.

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In later years, Mr. Merrett split his time between Montreal and North Hatley, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, in a converted cottage on Lake Massawippi. He was an enthusiastic outdoorsman, and he was involved in local causes, in particular those that involved architecture and development. He established Friends Amis North Hatley Canada (FANHCA). The group recently stopped a condo development in the area.

Bruce McNiven, his friend and fellow founder of Heritage Montreal, said Brian Merrett was modest and self-effacing, though at the same time passionate in his desire to record and preserve buildings in Montreal and throughout Quebec.

“He was never part of the school of general hand-wringing, false nostalgia, and anger about what was lost,” Mr. McNiven said at his memorial service. “He took his camera into battle.”

And Mr. Merrett won many of the battles to preserve older buildings not only in Montreal but also in Senneville, where he grew up, saving an elaborate outbuilding on a 19th-century estate that was being developed.

Mr. Merrett leaves his wife, Ms. Lyman; brother, Tim Merrett; children, Toby and Hannah; stepchildren, Lyman and Jonathan; and three grandchildren.

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