Sunday, April 09, 2006

Widow's request: "Please omit flowers"

As far as anybody knew, 1911 was a just another great year in the longest running housing boom Montrealers could remember. Migration from the countryside and substantial immigration combined to create a seller's market. Builders struggled to keep up with demand.

That summer, Eva and Carl Riepert bought a two-storey brick-face cottage at 2124 Waverly St. (today, 5300). They paid $4,500, a tidy sum at a time when the going rate for labourers was a dollar a day and a lady stenographer could expect to earn $1.80 a week.

The Rieperts took possession in September. They'd been living in Verdun when Carl worked in real estate but, in recent years, had moved to Mile End and joined the Anglican Church on Park Ave.

Oddly, Lovell's street directory identifies Carl Riepert as a boarder in the Esplanade Ave. apartment; his son Arthur, 24, an electrical inspector, is listed as head of the household, his 18-year-old brother, Walter, as a second boarder.

Riepert pere, 49, may have been ailing. Two months after they moved into their Waverly St. home, he died, leaving Eva to raise their two younger children - Alice, 15, and Harry, 13 - alone.

Riepert's obituary in the Montreal Star mentioned the funeral procession would leave from the house at 2:30 p.m., and ended with an icy request: "Please omit flowers."

On paper at least, the Rieperts had been optimistic about their future. They made a down payment of $1,000, took over an existing $2,000 mortgage held by Westmount businessman Charles Gurd, and got a $1,500 loan from the vendor, J. W. Finestone. Both debts were to be re-paid within two years at six per cent interest.

Eva used her maiden name, Mooney, on the document of sale. A prenuptial agreement made her separate in property, not an unusual situation for a woman of her time, especially one whose husband's livelihood changed often.

The experts say you never recognize a bubble until it bursts. That winter, the pop was loud and clear. Applications for building permits fell off sharply, house prices dipped and rents began to fall.

In retrospect, the signs had existed for awhile. As early as December 1909, Robert Neville Jr., the carpenter who at 24 had leveraged his father's modest building trade to create a full-fledged development enterprise, began to get nervous. He ran a large display ad in the Montreal Herald, announcing "A1 Properties For Sale on Park, Mance and St. Denis." The fine print offered substantial mortgages and promised "a sacrifice to the quick buyer."

The ambitious town of St. Louis, having incurred massive debt to build services for the construction boom, was forced to declare bankruptcy, leading to annexation by the city of Montreal in 1909. With the outbreak of war in 1914, the housing market ground to a standstill. Recovery was a long time coming.

For many people, the crash meant disaster - but it may have been a godsend for the newly widowed Eva. As each year passed, her house became more difficult to sell. A shrewd businessman held the mortgage; he may have decided his options were limited. In any case, she hung on for more than two decades, while making almost no mortgage payments.

She died in 1933 at the age of 72, deeply in debt, but far from poor.

The crumbs of biography left behind suggest Eva Mooney Riepert was a woman of considerable social ambition, keenly aware of status and reputation. Yet she knew insecurity first-hand and had weathered indignity.

Born in 1861 to Sarah Stuart and John H. Mooney, she was baptized at Crescent Presbyterian Church. She married Carl Riepert there in 1888. Church records show the couple had baptized Arthur, their first child, a year before the wedding.

Their marriage certificate is a curiously sparse document. The groom is listed as a bachelor and builder, Eva, 27, as a spinster. Carl's signature is strong, marked by flamboyant swirls, while hers is timid, shaky, nothing at all like the vigorous, non-nonsense flourish she would produce 11 years later on a document assigning her the right to carry on business under the name C. Riepert & Co.

In 1900, the couple took a decision that hints at a change in self-identification, if not quite a spiritual crisis. Long-time Presbyterians, they baptized Alice and Harry at St. Mark's Anglican Church in Longueuil, one of Quebec's most prestigious religions institutions, and a long way from their home.

Carl (who often called himself Charles) came from a German Lutheran family. At the turn of the 20th century, several Riepert brothers were in the clothing trade, spin-offs from a hat and fur business founded in the mid-1800s by their parents, Elisabeth and William.

The most prominent was Frank, an importer of Japanese, Chinese and European silks, rugs and fancy goods, with an establishment on Ste. Catherine St.

In 1905, when Carl and Eva were living in Verdun, Frank moved into the swanky Majestic Apartments on Hope Ave., near Dorchester Blvd. When he died in 1913, his widow settled in Westmount.

On her baptismal certificate, Eva's father is down as a shoemaker, though that may have been an understatement. By the 1880s, John H. Mooney & Sons ran a tannery in Verdun and several offshoot companies. They had branched out into wool, leather and "the manufacture of coloured sheepskins," later entering the retail trade in boots and shoes on Ste. Catherine St.

So when Eva was suddenly left with debts and teenage children to support, she might well have turned to family on either side for help. What is known for sure is that she paid two significant visits to millionaire Gurd, in the presence of a notary, each time striking an excellent deal that was to outlast the lender.

Gurd was an imposing, self-made man whose personal story predisposed him to look kindly on a widow in need. His parents, Joseph and Marianne, were Protestant Irish who emigrated in 1847.

During a terrible, though not uncommon, first winter, the Gurds were hoarded into sheds in Point St. Charles, then sent to Griffintown, where three children died. Only 5-year-old Charles survived.

Though she had already turned 40, Mrs. Gurd bore four more children. Struggling to support the brood, her husband failed at business, turned to drink and finally departed for Ottawa. Charles was left as the main breadwinner.

After studying at McGill, he started work in a wholesale drug firm and rose quickly, buying out the carbonated beverage division in 1868. His chief innovation was a product developed during the cholera epidemic, when people were skittish about water. Gurd's Belfast Ginger Ale was a popular drink for half a century, winning prizes at exhibitions in Belfast, Paris and London.

By 1911, the Gurds of Westmount were busy patrons of art and devoted philanthropists. In the case of Eva on Waverly St., Gurd's generosity was backed up by legal contracts.

The first and second mortgage payment deadlines passed unmet. In 1922, he leant the widow an additional $600, and in 1928, another $400.

The interest rate was raised from six to seven per cent on the combined loans. But whereas his original mortgage on the house to Julius (Jacob) Finestone had set down severe terms, arguably insulting, in Eva's case, a clause stating penalties for non-payment was stricken out.

Eva Riepert outlived Charles Gurd by four years. She paid only $50 toward the $3,000 principle. Including unpaid taxes, insurance and compound interest, she owed his estate well over $10,000.

Her daughter Alice, who trained as a teacher, had lived at 5300 Waverly since the family first moved in. On a January day in 1934, Alice met Gurd's daughter, Muriel, at a St. James St. notary's office and signed over the deed to the house.

Whatever hardship it might have caused Alice to lose the house she'd grown up in, at least she wasn't destitute. Her mother's will gave her a substantial property in New Glasgow, Terrebonne, including a mill by the Achigan river, a water wheel, machinery, a cottage and a furniture factory.

Situated on the railway line, New Glasgow was a popular summer resort at the time. It's unclear what Alice did with the country property, but she took her mother's furniture and relocated to Melrose Ave. in Westmount.

As for the boys, Eva must have decided they could take care of themselves. Walter had moved to New York City, Arthur to Richmond, Que. A bachelor and chartered accountant, Harry remained in Montreal, becoming a director of the Automobile Association (where Charles Gurd was active) and a member of the Board of Trade (as was Gurd). At one point, Harry was a 10-pin champion bowler.

In her will, she left each of her three sons an oil painting by McArthur, most likely John McArthur, who had shown his work at the Art Association of Montreal, one of several clubs frequented by Mr. and Mrs. Gurd.

How did she do it?

Despite a disparity in wealth, the borrower and lender's paths may have crossed socially. Maybe Eva meet Charles Gurd in 1911 when she and Carl took over Finestone's mortgage, and developed a rapport. Or, maybe Gurd was a friend of the Rieperts, and helped them get the house from Finestone.

Many people who've heard this story say there must have been romance involved. Eva was 50 and a mother of four, Charles, a great-grandfather of 69, when the mortgage was signed in 1911.

Of course, when it comes to a solid middle-class house on a quiet street, anything is possible.

Gurd's namesake, architect and photographer Charles IV, says his great-grandfather was a fierce teetotaller who hated the idea people were putting whisky in his soda. He had a marvellous sense of humour. He sang on radio and took fantastic photographs.

"My guess is he was probably just trying to help out a person in need," said Gurd, who divides his time between Victoria, B.C., and the Plateau Mont Royal.

A spinster of the age of majority (as they said in those days), Muriel Mendelsohn Gurd embraced the role of landlady with alacrity, renting first to Ruben Ryshpan who worked at Advanced Scarf on Esplanade.

A year later, he took in steamfitter John Mulvanie as a housemate; eventually Mulvanie assumed the lease and stayed six years.

When Muriel died in 1941, her siblings inherited the house. They sold it in 1947 to junkyard owner Benjamin Bruman for $4,500 - not a penny more than Eva and Carl Riepert had agreed to pay 36 years earlier.


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