Ice Palaces in Montreal, 1883-89

With the exception of remote luxury ice-hotels and a few contemporary winter festivals, large-scale, humanly constructed ice architecture has become increasingly rare. This is either a shame or simply a reflection of our increasingly pragmatic culture, depending on your perspective. But from 1883-1889, anyone living in or traveling to Montreal could enjoy the incredible Ice Palaces at each year’s Winter Carnival.

The Ice Palace built for the first Winter Carnival, in 1883, was North America’s first Ice Palace. It was designed by architect and mason A.C. Hutchinson, an expert in cut-stone work who had supervised work on the Christ Church Cathedral at age 19 before working on the Canadian Parliament buildings earlier in his career. 

William Notman's well-circulated photo of the 1883 Ice Palace
William Notman's well-circulated photo of the 1883 Ice Palace

(All images in this post are from the McCord Museum’s online Notman Photographic Archive. Image dimensions, material processes and credits from the McCord site can be found either by clicking on the cutline or scrolling to the bottom of this post.)

The dark roof peaks were constructed with wooden beams, then laid over with evergreen boughs and doused with water to form icicles over it all.

A.C. Hutchinson designed the Winter Festival’s Ice Palaces for 1883, 1884, 1885, 1887, and 1889. He hired his brother J.H. Hutchinson to construct the palaces. It was heavy work:

“At the frozen St. Lawrence River they cut blocks of ice, which measured 42 inches by 24 inches by 15 inches and weighed 500 pounds each. The castle, like all other nineteenth-century ice castles in Montreal, was assembled in the lower half of Dominion Square, in the area now known as Place du Canada.” (Ice Palaces, Fred Anderes and Ann Agranoff, Macmillan of Canada, Toronto, Canada. 1983. p. 26).

This early form of public art was apparently mildly successful in its first year, and wildly successful by 1884. The Ice Castle was described with poetic admiration in the March 8, 1884 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:

“[The Ice Castle] is castellated in design, 160 feet long (larger they tell us than the historical palaces of Russia), and contains 15,000 blocks of ice…. Viewed in the daytime, every block emitting its prismatic ray, dazzling and sparkling with crystal brilliancy as the sun lights on it, it presents an appearance which is completely fascinating, and has been visited, admired, and wondered at by hundreds every hour.”

Newspaper image by Alex Henderson (newspaper unknown). It really looks like sugar cubes!
Newspaper image by Alex Henderson (newspaper unknown). It really looks like sugar cubes!

Notman’s photography studio was well established by the mid-1860s. Cameras were still bulky and prohibitively expensive, so tourists depended on studios like his to provide picture-memories of events like the Winter Festival. This composite image would have been created specifically for that kind of buyer. 

The Notman Studio's collage of the 1884 Winter Festival spectacles
The Notman Studio's composite of the 1884 Winter Festival spectacles

(You might want to take a look at that one on the McCord site for all the details of the snowshoers, ice skaters, etc.)

This first version of a Winter Festival for Montreal ran until 1889. There are different versions of why it had such a short lifespan. For example, other Winter Festivals competed for tourists, such as the one held in St. Paul, Minnesota, which hired our man A.C. Hutchinson to design an Ice Palace in 1886. (St. Paul was one of the few cities that continued the tradition through the 20th century, up until 2004.)

Historian Alan Gordon suggests it was the overtly British nature of the Winter Festival that made it unsustainable in the bilingual, and quite divided, city that 19th-century Montreal was.

Although the carnival played on shared memories and symbols of Canada, British images hung over every event and attraction. While ice palaces, evergreens, and the omnipresent snowshoe emphasized the uniquely Canadian context of the carnival, ice sculptures of British lions reminded American visitors they were in British territory. And frozen sculptures of Far East images suggested the vastness of the British Empire. The carnival was a British occasion.

The storming of the Ice Palace by the city’s snowshoe clubs was the most popular single event, but only in 1884 did organizers invite French Canadians to participate. And, when francophone showshoe clubs organized parades through Montreal’s eastern neighbourhoods, many angolphones sneered at the similarities to Saint-Jean Baptiste routes. Tensions between eastern and western snowshoe clubs were so great as to separate eastern and western carnivals from each other” (Making Public Pasts: The Contested Terrain of Montreal’s Public Memories, 1891-1930, McGill-Queen’s University Press,  2001. p. 151)

Among anglophones, the Ice Palaces became popular enough to move into the realm of affordable art prints. These works reveal the technical architectural and building skills involved. Though the transparency of the ice – the quality that so appealed to and captivated viewers – doesn’t translate perfectly into inked lines, the Ice Palaces were certainly romantic and fantastical.


The Carnival Ice Castle for 1885, by John Henry Walker
Wood engraving of 1885 castle by John Henry Walker


Anonymous print of 1889 Ice Castle
Anonymous print of 1889 Ice Castle


Complete titles, image credits and technical information from the McCord Museum’s online Notman Photographic Archive. In order of appearance:

Ice palace, Montreal, QC, 1883
Wm. Notman & Son
1883, 19th century
Silver salts on glass – Gelatin dry plate process
20 x 25 cm
Ice palace, Winter Carnival, Montreal, QC, 1884
Alexander Henderson 1884, 19th century
1884, 19th century
Silver salts on paper – Halftone
20 x 25 cm

Carnival, Montreal, QC, composite, 1884
Wm. Notman & Son
1884, 19th century
Silver salts on glass – Gelatin dry plate process, composite photograph
20 x 25 cm

The Carnival Ice Castle for 1885
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper – Wood engraving
24.2 x 24.3 cm
Ice Palace, Montreal Carnival
Anonyme – Anonymous
1889, 19th century
46.9 x 63.5 cm

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