Old Montreal by Jacob Varghese – 2010. The new Theatre Saint James will occupy the building at far right.
A little bit of good news for those of us keen on the promotion of local culture and the preservation of heritage architecture – the old Canadian Bank of Commerce building has been purchased by the current owner of the Rialto Theatre, Ezio Carosielli, to be converted into a performance venue.
The bank branch was closed in 2010 and shortly thereafter purchased by the Bitton clan, well-known for their high-end jeans. Not knowing what in god’s name to do with it, they sold it to a man I’ve yet had the pleasure to meet, whose business it is (apparently) to give old theatres a new lease on life – with gains in profit and culture combined.
I wish I had the money right now to do the same. A long time ago I met with the former owner of the Rialto to see what I could find out about the place. It was clear from our conversation he had zero interest in using it was a performance space. Thankfully, today it does just that.
The story of Montreal’s once massive collection of theatres is a rather sad one, given how few have been preserved and maintained, not to mention the loss of some truly irreplaceable works of decorative art. The famed Maltese-Canadian theatre designer Emmanuel Briffa designed five ‘atmospheric vaudeville’ theatres (multi-use performance spaces, in essence, designed for theatre, cinema, music etc.) in MontrÃ©al, of which the Rialto is the only remaining functioning as originally intended. The Empress was recently acquired to be converted into a repertory theatre by the group behind Cinema Beaubien and will feature four screens and a restaurant, while the York and Seville were demolished (by Concordia and neglect respectively) and the Snowdon Theatre, once an Art Deco landmark, was infamously re-developed into a failed office building. Today it’s a community centre with no hope of ever returning to use as a performance space.
Now in this case a theatre isn’t being saved but a nonetheless striking banking hall will be cleverly repurposed for use as a venue, right in the heart of old Saint James Street. I find it interesting that the Old Port will now have two theatres located in former financial temples, but I digress. It’s a key part of town that could use additional performance space and will doubtless help solidify the Old Port’s cultural presence within the cityscape. While no plans have been released for how Mr. Carosielli intends to convert the space, what the capacity will be etc., he remains nonetheless convinced renovations will be minimal and they’ll be open for business within a few months.
Saint James has been a bit out of sorts lately. I’m fairly certain there was a strong push to re-dedicate the street as a sort of Southern Sherbrooke – replete with tony hotels and high-end boutiques. While there’s definitely plenty of that, there are also a few stalled developments and shot up haberdasheries. Not to mention that godawful nightclub.
This move may be a turning point for the street’s identity as it transitions from the former financial centre of the entire country into the old city’s showcase avenue, and I hope more residents (and services for them) flock to the area – it’s a real gem.
Final note, I’m also quite hopeful that this new competition lights the fire under some of the creative types over at the Centaur.
I still haven’t forgiven them for ‘Sex in La CitÃ©‘.