Bingham Mansion

Notre-Dame Street, Montreal, Quebec

Completed in 1822, for William Bingham (1800-1852) and his wife Marie-Charlotte Chartier de Lotbinière (1805-1866). Their home was modelled on Lansdowne House in London which Bingham knew well, it being the home of one of his father's closest friends. Their house immediately became the centre of fashionable society in Montreal and remained so until 1833 when they left for Paris. Afterwards, it served as the official residence of the Governors General of Canada; the first home of the High School of Montreal; and, finally it was added onto at the rear to become Donegana's Hotel - the largest in the British Colonies until it fell victim to the Montreal Riots of 1849. It was replaced by a distinctly inferior building that kept the Donegana name and became a hotbed for Confederate spies and blockade runners during the American Civil War....

This house is best associated with...

William Bingham

William Bingham, of Montreal, Paris, then Broome Park, Kent

1800-1852

Marie-Charlotte de Lotbinière

Marie-Charlotte (Chartier de Lotbiniere) Bingham, Seigneuresse de Rigaud

1805-1866

Born at the Bingham Mansion in Philadelphia, young William Bingham was the only son of one of America's first millionaires and the same man (and his family connections) who John Quincy Adams admitted was really in control of "the Presidency, the Capital and the Country" during the Revolution and Washington's administration. By four, he had lost both his parents and he was raised by his maternal grandfather, Thomas Willing, having already inherited a significant fortune that included 1.1 million acres in Maine and co-ownership of Lansdowne House, "supposed to be the best country house in America".

After living for a brief period in England with his sister Ann and her husband Lord Baring (the banker), William returned to Philadelphia where he was involved in "all sorts of scrapes" before it was decided that a marriage must be arranged for him.

In 1821, a potential wife was found in Montreal. She was Charlotte, the "Seigneuresse de Rigaud," being one of the three very wealthy daughters and co-heiresses of Alain Chartier de Lotbinière who had become friends with William's father when he was taken prisoner during the American Revolution. William wasted no time setting out to impress his future family and immediately commissioned the new house. But, despite this flamboyant gesture - and no doubt others like it - the months crept by and the marriage contract remained ominously unsigned. But, the new year brought in a fresh wind: his would-be father-in-law dropped dead on New Year's Day, 1822, and barely two weeks later the marriage contract was signed and sealed. Louis-Joseph Papineau lamented this rapid turn of events to his daughter, calling the young American "un vaurain" - a scoundrel!

The new house commissioned by Bingham was built on St. Denis Hill at what would become known as "Bingham's Corner," on the north-west corner of Notre-Dame and Bonsecours Streets. Even before it was built, Bingham had certainly made his presence known: "Bingham was very rich and dazzled the Montrealers by his expenditure… his equipage was very stylish, and he dashed through the narrow streets of the old town with outriders and four horses always at full speed to the amazement of the habitants (locals)".

The Grandest House in the City

From 1815, the David Ross House on the Champ de Mars was considered, "the grandest town residence in British North America". Bingham's quickly robbed it of that title: the facade of his imposing 3-story, neo-classical mansion measured 100-feet in length - double the length of the Maison Lafontaine which has recently been renovated on Avenue Overdale. It was centred by 5-arches on the ground floor supporting a terrace on the second floor with waist-height, iron balustrades between 6-Doric columns that rose two stories high, crowned by a triangular pediment. The Palladian mansion was modelled on Lansdowne House in London, the home of Bingham's father's great friend, the former British Prime Minister, the Marquess of Lansdowne. That house was where the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution was drafted in 1782; and, was later home to William Waldorf Astor and "the Earl of Oxford Street" Harry Gordon Selfridge.

Within Bingham's, "there were three immense doors on the ground floor" that led to the ballroom, where the young couple were renowned for holding "a great many entertainments". It is a loss to Montreal's history that practically nothing else is known about the house except that it was almost certainly the grandest of its kind within the city walls of Montreal. There were extensive formal gardens to the rear of the house and a conservatory attached to it that was well-stocked with various interesting plants that were reported to have done, "credit to Mrs Bingham's taste and knowledge of floriculture".

Too Much Fun?

Harrison Gray Otis - who had been entertained on several occasions at the Bingham Mansion in Philadelphia and was incidentally married to the "queen of Boston society" - recalled that the young couple lived, "in the best style at Montreal, where their house was open to all gay people (no doubt it was, but in this instance he meant revellers in the old fashioned sense of the word!), especially to officers of the British regiments".

At one ball given by them, a guest recalled Mrs Bingham dressed in "black velvet, with a white satin front, and white satin shoes, and a white plume in her hair (dancing) the minuet beautifully". It would certainly appear that Mrs Bingham enjoyed herself immensely during those years: her husband claimed in later life that of his five children born at Montreal, he was only certain of the legitimacy of his eldest son!

Entertaining with Royalty 

In 1824, Prince Carl Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar and his wife Princess Ida of Saxe-Meiningen - sister-in-law of King William IV - arrived in Montreal ahead of schedule during their tour of British North America. That evening, the Prince and his entourage were invited to a ball at the Bingham mansion, which he described in his memoirs:
Mr Bingham, from Philadelphia, had married a rich heiress here, and turned Catholic to get possession of her estate, gave a ball to-day, in honour of the first birthday of his... daughter and politely invited our company. We accepted the invitation, and rode to the ball at 9 o'clock. He was twenty-four years of age, and his wife nineteen; has many friends, because his cellar is well filled, and has the talent to spend his money liberally among the people. We found assembled in his rich and tastefully furnished halls the whole fashionable world of Montreal.

They mostly dance French contra dances, commonly called Spanish dances. To the contra dances, in honour of the officers of the 70th regiment, who are the favourite young gentlemen, they have adopted tedious Scotch melodies; to the Spanish dances they played German waltzes. The native ladies conversed in a very soft Canadian bad French, not even excepting our handsome landlady.

I took particular notice of a Miss Ermatinger the daughter of a Swiss - Charles Oakes Ermatinger - and an Indian woman, on account of her singular but very beautiful Indian countenance. She was dressed in the best taste of all, and danced very well. Indeed, there was a great deal of animation at this ball, as well as a great deal of luxury, particularly a profusion of silver plate and glass in the house of Mr Bingham, whose sister is the wife of the banker, Baring, of London.
Behaving Like Royalty...

Michel Bélisle related a story told to him by a de Lotbinière descendant: "When living in Montreal, around 1825, young Bingham liked to drive his carriage drawn by six horses, until one day he was arrested and taken to court where he was informed that in the British Empire only Royalty was allowed to harness six horses to a carriage. He was given a slight fine for which he insisted on paying double because, he said “tomorrow, I intend to go out again with my six animals pulling my carriage and I do not wish to be stopped”.

On being threatened with possible imprisonment for disobeying the law, he quipped that being an American he was not affected by English law. The next day the Justices of the Peace were out in force waiting for Bingham to drive out from his home. They were not disappointed. When the Binghams set out for their daily drive, they were both comfortably seated in his luxurious carriage drawn by six animals... five horses and a cow!"

Furnished in "Superior Style" for the Governors-General

In 1834, the Binghams left Montreal for Paris and for a short time they leased their old home to John Colborne, 1st Baron Seaton. In 1838, the Earl of Durham was appointed Governor-General of Canada and he chose the Bingham mansion over the run-down Château de Ramezay for his official residence - as did his successors until 1843. Durham requested that it be furnished in "superior style" and the Binghams spared no expense fitting it out, "in a splendid manner" to oblige the exacting standards of their new tenant. This included adding a cupola with a gallery that offered a 360-degree view of the city.

The First Home of the High School of Montreal

By 1843, the Binghams had moved from Paris to Broome Park in England and foreseeing no further use for their mansion in Montreal they sold up. In September of that year, it became the first home of the 167 newly enrolled students of the High School of Montreal. At the end of the first academic year the closing ceremony, presided over by Peter McGill and Lord Charles Metcalfe, was held in what had been the Bingham's ballroom.

Donegana's Hotel - "Palatial Exterior" & "Excellent Accommodation"

In 1845, the school moved to its purpose-built home on Belmont Street and the house was now purchased by a consortium of businessmen on behalf of hotelier, Jean-Marie Donegana - well-known as the successful general manager of Rasco's Hotel in Montreal. The facade of the building was kept as it had been when it was the Bingham's home, but extensive additions were made to the rear in what had been the formal gardens.

The building now stretched all the way across to the Champ de Mars and back then it was the largest hotel in the British colonies. Every luxury was made available and each of the 150-apartments had its own bathroom with hot and cold baths available at any hour of the day. The dining room measured 100-feet by 218-feet and the gas lighting that lit the hotel was said to have given, "a marvellous effect to the rich marble decorations" in the lobbies.

In 1845, the English traveller John Bigsby found Montreal, "a stirring and opulent town... advanced in all the luxuries and comforts of high civilisation". He no doubt had Donegana's in mind when he remarked that its inns were, "as remarkable for their palatial exterior" as for their, "excellent accommodation within". It was considered on a par with New York's Astor House, built by J.J. Astor, and as good any hotel in London.

Just as it had done when home to the Binghams, Donegana's attracted the cream of Montreal society and played host to a number of artistic performances, attracting leading names from Italy and France. A British army officer described it as, "a magnificent establishment," finding the furnishings equal to its "splendid" architecture: "Everything was conducted... in the first style: the furniture was superb, and the attendance. All French waiters, most admirable, while the cuisine was of the most recherché character".

In about 1847, another British officer, Captain Lord Mark Kerr, decided to stir up some excitement in the hotel when he had heard there was an abundance of American tourists staying: Kerr rode his horse into the dining room, stepping nonchalantly around the tables. At first the room was stunned into silence, but the silence quickly turned to laughter and Kerr found himself showered with invitations to New York!

Replaced by an Inferior Namesake... a Hotbed for Confederate Spies

What had been Montreal's grandest home and then its grandest hotel, "was entirely consumed by fire" during the political riots in Montreal on October 16, 1849. The site was sold in 1850 and a new hotel under American management (Mr J.H. Daley) was built in its place and cleverly renamed "The Donegana Hotel," being no longer associated with Donegana himself. The replacement was not only disappointingly unimpressive to look at, but it also had a distinctly second-class reputation. During the American Civil War when Montreal became the unofficial base of the Confederate Secret Service, the St. Lawrence Hotel and the Donegana Hotel were over-run with spies and blockade runners. From 1864 until the end of the war, it was at Donegana's that Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, placed his mother-in-law (Mrs Howell), two sons and a daughter. The second hotel stood until 1880 when it was demolished to make way for the Hôpital Notre-Dame.

You May Also Like...

Contributed by Mark Meredith on 31/10/2018 and last updated on 30/10/2020.

Connections

Be the first to connect to this house. Connect to record your link to this house. or just to show you love it! Connect to Bingham Mansion →