James Ross House
3644 Peel Street, Montreal, Quebec
This house is best associated with...
John Kenneth Leveson Ross
Commander "Jack" J.K.L. Ross C.B.E., of Montreal; Deputy-Governor of Jamaica
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 House opposite but later sold it to the 2nd Lord Shaughnessy. Having inherited $16 million (Canadian dollars which today would be worth about US$280 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 2-acre garden behind the house he laid 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 and he bought Willie K. Vanderbilt's high-speed steam-powered yacht, Tarantula) 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:
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's Chancellor Day Hall
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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