Generally speaking, I’m a fan of urban exploration.
However, there’s a few golden rules we should all keep in mind when it comes to exploring the secret and unseen parts of the city: don’t leave any trace behind, don’t hurt yourself, don’t inconvenience others, and above all else, don’t negatively impact the place you’re exploring.
Say, as an example, by starting a fire that may threaten a vintage theatre and the residents of the adjacent apartment complex.
But if you are so inclined to start a fire in an abandoned building, for the love of all that is good and holy, please share a video or photographs of your illegal deeds on social media, so you can be found and eventually prosecuted.
At this point you may be asking; “but who on Earth would be so foolish to do such a thing?”
The answer: teenagers. Boneheaded teenagers. And apparently some hotshot young videographers as well.
Unless of course these are off duty and out of uniform STM employees who happen to be urban exploration enthusiasts; that would be one of those ‘everything worked out better than expected’ conclusions I don’t think is terribly likely.
So while I find this video intriguing and interesting, I can’t in good conscience recommend others do the same. The risk is far too great.
That said, the STM could probably make some coin offering after-hours behind-the-scenes tours of the city’s transit infrastructure. I would pay good money to get a guided walking tour of the Orange Line, and am certain many others would too.
It’s remarkable to me that two different groups of people, in the same city and at essentially the same time, both recorded acts of trespassing and other illegal activities and then posted it to social media, seemingly oblivious the video or photo evidence could be used against them.
Kristian Gravenor has weighed-in on the Snowdon’s fire, but places the blame for the building’s slow demise ultimately on the city and borough government. In his opinion, neither have been proactive with regards to saving this building, and he suspects the borough will now announce it can’t be saved, and that as such it ought to be razed to fast-track new construction.
I would like to hope he’s wrong, and that this is simply a matter of local government lacking in vision and hoping for ‘free market’ solutions to solve problems that clearly fall within the public domain.
But when you consider that the Snowdon is the latest in an unfortunately long list of landmark Montreal theatres abandoned to ignoble fates without even an iota of effort by municipal officials to save them, it makes you wonder. This isn’t a new problem, it dates back forty years to the destruction of the Capitol Theatre, arguably the grandest of them all. More recently, the Seville and York were pulled down (to build condos and a university pavilion, respectfully), while the Snowdon, Cartier and most importantly, the Empress, lie abandoned and in ruin (and there are maybe a dozen more scattered elsewhere about the city).
In a city known for its nightlife, live entertainment and general cultural engagement, why is it very nearly impossible to renovate and rehabilitate old theatres and make them useful elements of the community at large?
Jean Lapierre was a gentleman. Quebec and Canada have lost an immense talent, and one of our best political analysts.
The information available at this time is that he and four family members were en route to the Iles de la Madeleine to attend his father’s funeral. The plane crashed in bad weather. All seven people onboard have passed.
The plane had departed St. Hubert and attempted to land on the islands in very poor weather. The plane bounced off the runway and then broke up.
Most people would have been happy with just that, but Jean Lapierre was not most people. He was driven, ambitious and became a voice of thoughtful consideration and conscience. He would return to federal politics in the cabinet of Paul Martin, to whom he was fiercely loyal. Lapierre would subsequently become transport minister before retiring from politics for a second time in 2007 to go back to broadcasting.
The first impression he made on me was that, unlike many other pundits and political analysts, he didn’t seem full of himself. He answered his own phone, he was always keen to help out with an interview or discussion. He rarely said no, unless it was to spend time with his family. He was always polite, respectful and kind when dealing with the chase producers, the lowest part of the broadcasting totem poll. I can’t emphasize this point enough: in two arenas dominated by massive, in most cases over-inflated egos, Jean was refreshingly humble and down-to-Earth. The second impression he made was that he was one of the few political analysts who could dissect the political arenas of Canada, Quebec and Montreal with equal parts expertise, humour and style. He reminded me of how politics could be fun, or at least how to see what was amusing in our unique type of politics. He was witty, insightful, sharp and above all else, interesting. I could listen to Jean Lapierre discuss the politics of Canada, Quebec and/or Montreal, in either language, and always come out informed, engaged, and more often than not inspired.
What happened to him, to his family, is an unspeakable tragedy.
It’s the second major blaze in as many days. A fire tore through three abandoned buildings at the intersection of King and Wellington streets in Old Montreal Friday morning, leaving little more than the exterior walls of the triplet of antique edifices (and on that note: these have since been demolished, according to firefighter spox Ian Ritchie, the walls were ‘too unstable’). Montreal police arson squad investigators have described that fire as ‘suspicious’. There were plans to build a condominium project on that site, though this drew the ire of preservation activists and the plan ultimately fell-through. The Snowdon Theatre, similarly abandoned and up-until-now likely to have been converted into condos, falls in a grey area architectural preservation wise. It’s historic and old, but this isn’t usually enough to get a building officially listed. Many of Montreal’s iconic movie houses have been razed owing to this fact.
That request was denied. The borough indicated to Gravenor three separate articles could be used to justify the borough’s refusal to provide this basic information.
Remember, the Snowdon Theatre is for sale and the public, ostensibly, has a right to bid on it (as long as you have ten large lying around). But information about the building’s sale, or its condition, is not considered public information, at least in part because the borough feels making such information public would either unduly harm an individual, or benefit another, or possibly “have a serious adverse effect on the economic interests of the public body or group of persons under its jurisdiction.”
As far as the borough is concerned, knowing whether this building constitutes a veritable heritage site (by virtue of the basic information about the building the city would have to have access to already), and knowing how much (or how little) was spent on it ever since the borough bought the building back in 2004, could be risky either for themselves or some theoretical, legally-plausible citizen.
My guess is it’s likely the former.
Gravenor also brings up the fact that the upper-level of the post-renovation Snowdon Theatre was, for many years, used as a gymnasium that had produced some quality athletes and – most importantly – was still very much in use right up until the borough kicked a bunch of kids to the curb back in 2013. In principle the borough replaced one gym with another, though in practice the kids, mostly young girls, got short-changed, with the new facilities essentially inadequate for gymnastics. The gym was basically the only part of the post-renovation complex that was well-used, and it permitted some interior decorative and design elements to be preserved.
Naturally, since families and children were enjoying themselves and exercising, the borough decided they should put a quick end to it all and evict them. Officially, the ‘roof was damaged’ and thus the city-owned building had to be… abandoned rather than repaired.
Naturally, …because this is Montreal and graft runs the local economy.
So how did we get here? And is the Snowdon a potential heritage site worth preserving?
The theatre was completed in 1937 after a five-year, Great Depression related hiatus in cinema and theatre construction in Montreal. It was worth the wait, as the theatre was visually striking in its nascent International style. The theatre is often identified as an Art Deco design, but in fact is a melange of different styles including Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. The style was a major leap forward and signals the first of a new generation of Montreal theatres. It was large, spacious and boldly decorated by Emmanuel Briffa, the renown Maltese theatre decorator who left his mark all over our city. The theatre was built by United Amusements, a leading theatre chain of the day, and mostly showed double-bills with a schedule aimed to accommodate the lives and lifestyles of those living within walking proximity (which at the time would have been predominantly middle-class and suburban). The hall sat 882 and, quite unlike the minimalist exterior, had just about every square inch decorated. Tile, stained glass, plaster reliefs, sculptures and frescoes made the building’s interiors into something of a technicolor wonderland. The Snowdon’s lobby had a strong marine theme, topped off with a gigantic aquarium.
It’s remarkable actually, that theatre-owners put so much time, money and effort into decorating their theatres back in the day. Can you imagine an aquarium in the Paramount or at the Forum? How long would that last?
And if all that isn’t remarkable enough, it’s equally amazing all this work would be carelessly painted over, removed or otherwise destroyed by several ‘renovations’ that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. There are no known photographs of the opulent and imaginative lobby, a scarce few of the theatre’s interior from its glory days.
What finally dragged the Snowdon under, like many other classic Montreal theatres, was one-part advances in technology (like multiplex cinemas and VCRs) and one-part moral decay. Porn hit the big screen in a big way back in the 1970s and a great number of antique vaudeville theatres had their lives prolonged somewhat when these theatres turned over to X-rated fare, the Snowdon no exception.
Unfortunately, and as you might imagine, once a theatre descends into becoming a ‘jack-shack’ it rarely manages to pick itself back up again to be anything else. Cinema l’Amour, on The Main just south of Duluth, is a good example of pornography saving an ancient theatre, as it has been in that business since the 1960s (the building itself dates back to 1914).
The Snowdon stopped being a theatre in 1982 and was left vacant for a few years until it was purchased by Monteva Holdings. That firm converted the Snowdon into its current form: the theatre was bisected with the upper portion becoming a gymnasium, the lower portion converted into offices and retail space. The marquee was left intact, but just about everything inside changed completely. The project was ultimately unsuccessful, as the building was once again vacant by the late 1990s.
What little that remained intact of the original theatre was limited chiefly to the ceiling of the former theatre’s hall, and it’s here where Saturday’s fire occurred. If the roof was in need of repairs three years ago when the borough evicted the gymnasium, it most certainly needs them to be completed now, lest the whole building be given over to the elements. Worth noting: roof problems are what’s chiefly responsible for keeping NDG’s Empress Theatre in its state of advanced decrepitude. As far as I can tell, prohibitive renovation costs (dictated by the borough) have sunk every plan to revitalize and rehabilitate that space, and once again the borough and city seem perfectly content to simply let ‘nature take its course’ and do nothing at all.
So, will your elected officials take the hint and act fast to save this landmark?
It’s hard to tell, but if you’re so inclined and passionate about preserving our city’s architectural heritage and places and spaces of recreation and leisure, I highly recommend reaching out to them directly. I’m hopeful they’ll respond favourably to increased public interest in supporting our city’s rich cultural heritage by working to find long-term solutions to make these old theatres viable performance venues once again. Just about every neighbourhood in this city has one, and if resurrected, it’s my contention that the long-term economic stimulus provided by these cultural centres would be far higher than the cost of the initial investment. City officials need to work with private citizens, and not wait around for ‘free market’ solutions, to raise funds and collaborate on a mass resuscitation of Montreal’s ‘threatened theatres’. It would be an excellent project for the 375th anniversary.
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s take a trip back in time.
The year is 1758 and the ‘Seven Years’ War‘ had entered its fourth year in North America. The conflict was the largest international conflagration since the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, and involved every ‘great power’ (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire) of the era. It was a contest between two grand coalitions, one led by Great Britain, the other by Bourbon France, and was fought throughout Europe, the Americas, West Africa and even as far afield as the Philippines. By its end, Britain would be the predominant global power, a position it would retain until the mid-20th century. But it would come at a cost for the British: within a decade of the war’s conclusion thirteen British colonies would rebel to form the United States, the nation that would ultimately replace Britain as the predominant world power a little under two centuries later. And even more importantly, some of the more immediate consequences of the Seven Years’ War would contribute to the French Revolution, arguably one of the most important events in human history. This in turn leads to the rise of Napoleon (and coming full circle here, we have Napoleon’s t-shirt. It’s at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the story behind why we have it is the subject of another article).
The map above is entitled ‘Plan of the Town and Fortifications of Montreal or Ville Marie in Canada‘ and dates back to January 30th, 1758. It was engraved by Thomas Jefferys, a London cartographer also known as the ‘Geographer to King George III’, and would have been used by the British as they prepared for a potential attack. This is Montreal at the time of the Conquest. Jean-Claude Marsan has indicated that this map was likely based off a previous French example, though in most respects it is an accurate depiction of what Montreal looked like.
At the time Montreal was one of the largest settlements in France’s North American possessions: the population of the town of Montreal in 1760 was roughly 5,000, with perhaps 8,300 in total living on-island (the island’s total population was about the same as Quebec City in 1758, though these population figures would have changed during the course of the conflict, especially after the Siege of Quebec). In all of New France there were but 65,000 inhabitants, this compared to an estimated 1.5 million people living in the English colonies along the Atlantic Coast. France’s loss of its North American possessions to the British is hardly surprising, given this severe population imbalance. In his seminal study of the evolution of Montreal’s urban environment, Marsan points out that the Bourbon monarchs of France spent about as much on their colonial efforts as they did on their recreation at Versailles, and indebted the community of Montreal to pay for its own defences.
In 1758, Montreal was a metropolis by French North American standards, though it wasn’t particularly impressive when compared to British American cities like Boston (with an estimated population of 16,000 in 1742) or Philadelphia (13,000 the same year). Montreal was still chiefly a fortified frontier town, but given its position at the confluence of the Outaouais and Saint Lawrence rivers, not to mention its geographic attributes, was of remarkable strategic importance.
The 1758 map details the city’s most important buildings, some of which exist to this day. First and foremost is the Sulpician Seminary on Place d’Armes, whose construction dates back to 1687. The seminary’s clock, installed in 1701, as well as its gardens, are the oldest of their kind on the continent. The second oldest extant building pictured here is the central section of the former Grey Nuns’ Hospital, called the Freres Charron General Hospital at the time. This building, located outside the protective walls but south of the RiviÃ¨re Saint-Pierre, would have served the town’s poorest citizens as well as acting like a kind of asylum for the lame and insane.
Montreal’s other important buildings in 1758 would have included the parish church of Notre-Dame, located in the middle of Place d’Armes and adjacent to the Sulpician Seminary. Notre-Dame Basilica would replace the parish church in 1829, with the church’s bell tower razed upon the completion of the basilica’s bell towers in 1843. Across Rue Saint-Sulpice was the convent of the Congregation Notre-Dame and the Hotel-Dieu, the town’s principal hospital, which they ran. The Hotel-Dieu was established on that site in 1688, and would have burned and been rebuilt three times by 1758.
At the far eastern edge of the town (at the letter E) stood a ‘cavalier’, which is a type of fort built inside a fort and on much higher ground, though as is indicated in the legend, it lacked a parapet. This is where Montreal’s few artillery pieces would have been located: close to the river’s edge and the eastern gate, defending the town’s arsenal and boat yard.
By 1758 the danger of fire was far more threatening than attack by the Iroquois, and so small villages had begun to appear outside the town walls along the established ‘chemins du roy’. These roadways, much like the street grid of Old Montreal, are the most important and enduring elements of Montreal’s first urban planners. Life outside the protective walls would have had some serious benefits, namely a breath of fresh air. As the colonial era town lacked a sewage system, waste of all kinds were simply thrown into the street. Moreover, there was a fair bit of agriculture and all manner of farm animals inside the gates, often free to move about as they pleased. So the urban-suburban rivalry of Montreal is about as old as the city itself. In 1758, about 40% of the island’s population lived outside the walls.
Montreal in 1758 would have been positively medieval; the basic layout of the fortified town mimicked examples in the Southwest of France and on the English borders with Wales and Scotland from roughly four or five centuries earlier. The basic housing design, examples of which have survived in the form of traditional Quebecois architecture, are also medieval in nature, similar examples being found in Normandy. One particular element of the town’s early design was that it had two principle open spaces – one in front of the parish church (today’s Place d’Armes) and another, a market place, closer to the river and with its own gate (today called Place Royale). Here we find another urban design element that has survived to this day: the lower town, closer to the river, is the most densely populated and would have been home to the town’s merchant class. The upper part featured the town’s major religious buildings, all of which featured stately gardens. This layout also recalls that Montreal was initially conceived as a religious mission, and so those buildings occupied the higher ground of the Coteau Saint-Louis. The grade separation of the classes for the most part remains intact; the wealthiest neighbourhoods of modern Montreal are at the base of Mount Royal, the working class neighbourhoods are still ‘down the hill’ and located within proximity of the river.
Some things really never change. Individual buildings dating back to the heroic colonial era may be in short supply, but the impression of the village illustrated above is our most enduring link to Europe. You can still see the Montreal of 1758, you just have to know where – and where not – to look. Or perhaps ‘how not to look’ as it’s more often than not the spaces between the buildings, the roads and squares, that provide the greatest wealth of clues to the town that once was. This is where we discover that the roots of Old Montreal in Old Europe, and an urban aesthetic which reaches back nearly a millennium.
Montreal: a modern medieval city…
Author’s note: thanks to Alan Hustak for some corrections. First, technically Montreal never surrendered, but rather capitulated what with the overwhelming odds stacked against the town and its people in 1760. Doing so allowed the terms of surrender to be negotiated and as such facilitated Montreal’s successful, peaceful transition from one empire to another. In addition, Montreal was not the largest settlement in New France at the time, as I incorrectly stated in this article’s first draft. The population of Quebec City would have been roughly 9,000, and Trois-RiviÃ¨res at about 8,000, with Montreal’s town population at 5,000 and the island’s population at roughly 8,300. These figures would have been precise up to around the time of the Seven Years’ War, though likely changed after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Siege of Quebec.
So once upon a time there was a large, densely populated working class neighbourhood just east of Old Montreal informally called the ‘Faubourg Ã m’lasse’.
The estimate is that in the early 1960s roughly 5,000 people lived there occupying 678 residences, and the neighbourhood would have included about two dozen factories and other industrial operations, not to mention a dozen or so restaurants and grocery stores and all the other services one would expect to find in a typical urban neighbourhood.
By the mid-1950s the neighbourhood had been targeted for ‘revitalization’ by the Dozois Report which aimed to eliminate a wide-variety of urban social ills via expropriation and demolition. Large chunks of the city’s urban environment were to be obliterated entirely so as to ‘clean the slate’ and offer new tracts of land on which to build ostensibly more useful structures. It was reasoned evicting the working classes from their urban neighbourhoods was simply a continuance of established patterns in population movement; the new middle class of the 1950s were moving to outlying suburbs of detached single family homes, and so it was assumed their former urban neighbourhoods would receive those displaced by the evictions. Further, the grander scheme was to make land available for new high-density urban housing (partly realized with Les Habitations Jeanne-Mance), government offices (Hydro-Quebec) and an urban public university (UQAM), all of which was justified in the name of progress and sensible land use and leaves us with a tricky legacy. Thousands of poor people were strong-armed out of their neighbourhoods, the city-centre was radically depopulated and entire communities ceased to exist, but in some cases very useful things wound up occupying those spaces (UQAM and Place des Arts come immediately to mind).
As it happened, the SRC/CBC was looking to do the same; they had an internal team of architects and planners working on the project at roughly the same time.
Drapeau favoured a location close to the new central business district rising around Gare Central and Windsor Station, but it was during the brief interregnum of Mayor Sarto Fournier that an alternative location further east was decided upon to become the new home of the national broadcaster in Montreal.
Unfortunately, Fournier’s plan called for the expropriation and demolition of the Faubourg Ã m’lasse in its entirety. At the time I suppose they thought this was progress, though perhaps today we know a little better. From the detailed photographic archives available, it’s clear that though the area may have been poor, it’s hard to believe it was a slum beyond repair and rehabilitation. The ‘slum clearance’ was completed in 1963, with construction of the Maison Radio-Canada taking a decade to complete.
And wouldn’t you believe it? A plan to do just that was developed a decade ago.
Right now the argument is that there’s a surplus of available space and the building is essentially beyond repair or renovation. The SRC is currently exploring their options, which include: selling the building but continuing to lease space in it, selling it and building a new facility on the same site, selling it and building a new facility elsewhere in the city, or doing the latter but leasing space in an existing building. You’ll notice the common thread and that they’re being quite thorough in considering their options. According to Radio-Canada executive vice-president Louis Lalande, ‘the national broadcaster shouldn’t be in the real-estate business.’
Perhaps… but I’m not convinced building something new or leasing space will ultimately be that cost-effective. The national broadcaster has had its budget slashed repeatedly for years; had this not been the case it’s reasonable to suspect there might not be a $170 million renovation deficit nor the surplus of space. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a building that was built to last with broadcasting in mind and further to serve as a major pole of attraction for the city’s media industry (and on that note, job well done).
In any event, the thought had occurred to me that if the Maison Radio-Canada has a surplus of space, why not go back to the original plan and concentrate the whole SRC/CBC operation in Montreal?
In my eyes this would be the most sensible solution, not to mention potentially the most rewarding. For one, we’d end the senseless linguistic segregation of the national broadcaster. Two, Canadian media would subsequently be less Toronto-centric. Three, the CBC could sell its broadcast centre in Toronto and corporate office in Ottawa, which if I had to guess are both sitting on land far more valuable than the Maison Radio-Canada. Montreal’s cost of living is lower than Toronto’s, which would be a boon to the broadcaster’s employees, and Montreal further benefits from some of the nation’s premier journalism, communications and media production programs.
Seriously, what’s not to love?
I reached out to Radio-Canada with a variety of questions and got a reply from the SRC’s PR director, Marc Pichette.
According to him, combining the CBC and SRC under one roof at the Maison Radio-Canada has “never been an option.”
But in response to a question concerning an old plan to develop mixed-use housing on the site, and whether this was still on the books, Pichette replied that “…this option has been considered in the past. However, the property can hardly be developed without approval of a master development plan for the entire site.”
So what’s this then?
It seems as though the SRC did come up with a plan to revitalize the Maison Radio-Canada and the parking lots around it about a decade ago. This plan called for the development of the parking lots into mixed-use housing and selling off the tower (for conversion into condominiums) while retaining the base of the structure with all its recently renovated and culturally significant studios.
The sale of the tower would in turn pay for the construction of a new office space better integrated into its surroundings and in accordance with their now smaller space requirements.
As Cardinal notes in his La Presse report, the Daoust Lestage proposal would have led to the creation of a large new urban neighbourhood and would have become the ‘eastern door’ to Montreal’s central business district.
It should be noted that the Daoust Lestage plan dates from 2006; the entire Faubourg Quebec has seen nothing but growth since then. Consider the new CHUM superhospital, the successful rehabilitation of the Gare Viger or the reclamation of former port lands for new medium density residential housing. The Daoust Lestage plan for the Maison Radio-Canada could add housing for thousands more in a part of town that has suffered from depopulation for far too long (see their presentation here).
And yet, despite this, the SRC is sticking to its guns. Pichette replied to Cardinals’ open letter by indicating that years of budget cuts, the 2008-09 economic collapse and the digitization of media has contributed to the SRC reviewing their space requirements and that the Daoust Lestage plan was far, far larger than what they currently need.
And the Maison Radio-Canada is an indelible part of all those things.
There are other options than simply walking away from a purpose-built broadcasting centre and abandoning it to the free-market, and the SRC has already spent millions of taxpayers dollars coming up with a sensible plan to breathe new life into an ascendant sector of the city. Joly should consider that option at the very least.
Walking away from the Maison Radio-Canada is thoroughly unethical given 5,000 people lost their community in order to see it built, and it doesn’t matter that the obliteration of the Faubourg Ã m’lasse happened more than fifty years ago. As far as I’m concerned, if land is expropriated for public purposes, then it should remain in the public’s hands.