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James Ross House

Montreal, Quebec

Completed in 1892, for James Ross (1848-1913) and his wife, Annie Kerr (1847-1915). This French/Scottish Baronial 40-room chateau was designed by one of the masters of that style, Bruce Price (1845-1903). In the 1920s, the Ross House became the vibrant heart of Gilded Age Society in Montreal. It hosted the Prince of Wales and for a decade it roared with champagne-fuelled dancing, music and laughter. But, this all came crashing down when the Ross' only son, J.K.L. Ross, famously managed to burn his way through his $16 million inheritance in a whirl of thoroughbred racehorses, lavish parties and the largest yachts. By 1935, he was bankrupt. Since 1948, the mansion has been part of the McGill University Faculty of Law, renamed Chancellor Day Hall....
James Ross was a Scottish civil engineer who oversaw the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (of which he was a major shareholder) and advised Lord Strathcona on other railway projects in Chile and Argentina. He oversaw the electrification of the street railways in all the major Canadian cities plus those in Birmingham (England), Mexico City and São Paulo. He was President of the Dominion Bridge Co., Dominion Coal, and of the Mexican Power Company etc. Aside from business, he was equally well-known for his philanthropy, building two hospitals and co-founding the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He had a genuine passion for art, collecting the Old Masters, and was the first Canadian to be made a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron. His yacht won the American Corinthian Cup and he also bought Joseph Pulitzer's steam yacht for cruising vacations in Europe.

Architecture

Similarly to the Sinnott Mansion (1891) near Philadelphia, the Ross Mansion is a mixture of French Renaissance (conical towers, dormer windows, pitched roofs and general detailing) and Scottish Baronial, through the use of rough-cut stone. In 1890, Ross hired the Canadian Pacific Railway's architect of choice, Bruce Price, to build his home in Montreal. In many ways, Price was seen as the successor to Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895) who pioneered the chateau style with the Vanderbilt's Petit Chateau in Manhattan.

Ross' mansion took three years to build and was faced with Credit Valley (New Brunswick) limestone. Though smaller, it inspired Wesson House in Massachusetts. Between 1897 and 1912, Ross employed Edward and William Maxwell to expand on Price's original work and in 1905 the interior was completely transformed. The additions included: an entire new wing to the west for Ross' collection of Old Masters; a logia to the south; the grand hall staircase as seen today; a new breakfast room; a further bedroom; and, more detailing in the carved stone balustrades and wrought iron gates.

Jack Ross & the Roaring Twenties

James Ross died in 1913, followed by his wife two years later. Their only child, Jack, had built the J.K.L. Ross Mansion opposite but later sold it to the 2nd Lord Shaughnessy. Having inherited $16 million from his parents, Ross then spent $250,000 transforming their old home into a 40-room mansion dedicated to entertaining Gilded Age high society.

Jack hired the New York firm of Trowbridge & Livingston to add the flat-roofed wing on the southwest corner to house large new kitchens, bathrooms and servants quarters. To give an idea of Jack's elevated standard of living, the house was run by 30 live-in staff which was only six less than the Vanderbilt's required to run Marble House in Newport! Aside from improving its domestic arrangements, in the grounds behind the house he laid out two grass tennis courts, extended the conservatories and built a gardener's cottage.

In 1923, Jack held a house-warming to celebrate the newly completed works. He invited 50 friends to dinner and 125 more for dancing afterwards. One of those in attendance was the Prince of Wales who was travelling incognito as "Lord Renfrew". It was reported that the young Prince had such a good time that he stayed until sunrise. The discreet article, politely put it that, "in consequence, Lord Renfrew did not arise very early yesterday"!

Outwardly, Jack Ross was the closest Canada had to an Astor, Gould or Vanderbilt. He was also good-looking, "good-natured and unaffected with everybody from Princes to taxi drivers" and generous to a fault - he lavished money on all those near to him, both personally and charitably. He operated one of the most powerful racing stables in North America from Bolingbrook in Maryland; he owned 7 yachts (his 75-foot yacht Gloria was in the same class as King George V's celebrated Brittania), not including two that he gifted to the Canadian Navy; and guests who came up to the Races at Montreal or his fishing lodge (he held the world record for catching a 680lbs tuna with just a rod and line) at St. Ann's in Nova Scotia were met at the station in Montreal by his private railway carriage:

It was longer and heavier than a standard Pullman, and, in addition to half a dozen staterooms with proper beds instead of mere berths, it had a dining room, a living room, and a bathroom with a huge tub and gold-plated taps. And on the way to the track, as the veteran Montreal sports columnist Elmer Ferguson once wrote, Ross provided his guests with “a chef, a wonderful meal, and champagne flowing like oil in Texas.”

It was no wonder that Princess Patricia (who became engaged to her husband at Ross' fishing lodge in St. Anns) said that Jack Ross lived more royally than Royalty itself! 

From Railroads to Ruin and Respite

Simply put, Jack Ross liked to live like a Vanderbilt, but he was not nearly as rich. Even by 1923 he was feeling the strain and despite a string of headline-catching triumphs on the turf - his black-and-orange colors were famous at every track from Montreal to Mexico - the strain was most felt on the upkeep of his stables and 47 thoroughbreds. Coupled with some terrible business advice followed by the Wall Street Crash, the cracks were showing.

By 1926, Jack had run up debts that necessitated the sale of his father's beloved art collection which otherwise would have almost certainly been left to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The Ross Collection was auctioned off at Christie's in London in just 45-minutes. The whole lot was sold for a record price of £680,000. It included Rembrandt's Portrait of a Man; Rubens' Departure of Lot and his Family; Lady Anne Fitzgerald as "Sylvia" by Joshua Reynolds; Corot's Fontainebleau; Rousseau's Carrefour de la Reine Blanche; La Lecon d'Equitation by Jean-Francois Millet; & Turner's Venice, the Dogana.

Despite the money from the sale, by 1935 through a combination of lavish generosity, extravagant parties across four houses, a vast horse-racing operation, yachts, the Wall Street Crash and bad business decisions, Jack Ross had managed to deplete his fortune of $16 million to just a mere $300. Disgraced and humiliated, his wife the heiress Ethel Matthews left him and people he had once counted as friends turned their backs on him.

In 1920, the Ross House had been valued at $1 million. By 1935, Montreal was in the grips of the Depression and Jack was lucky to sell the mansion at all. That year, it was sold for a paltry $51,000. Ross was only saved from complete ruin by a trust fund that gave him a not-too-shabby $50,000 a year and he left Montreal for Cromarty House in Jamaica where he admitted he was far happier than he had ever been as a multi-millionaire.

McGill University

The house had been acquired by the Montreal Trust who in 1943 sold it to the Canadian government when it was occupied by the Canadian Army Medical Corps and the Canadian Women's Army Corps. In 1948, McGill's governor and one of its greatest benefactors, John W. McConnell (1877-1963), purchased the Ross House on behalf of McGill University. Renamed Chancellor Day Hall it has been part of the McGill Faculty of Law ever since. 

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References

Image Courtesy of Thomas1313 from Wiki Commons; Maxwell Archives at McGill University; Mansions of the Golden Square Mile, Montreal 1850-1930, by Francois Remillard & Brian Merrett (Meridian Press, 1987); The Square Mile, Merchant Princes of Montreal (1987), by Donald McKay; Virtual McGill Campus: Chancellor Day Hall (formerly James Ross House); How J.K.L. Ross Spent Sixteen Millions (James Bannerman, Macleans April 2, 1955)