Griffintown co-op to be rebuilt; residents offered accommodation at nearby condo project

Brickfields Conceptual Rendering
Brickfields Conceptual Rendering

Some late breaking good news.

It appears the now homeless former residents of the Saint Anne housing co-op in Griffintown have caught a break after several days of devastating news.

To recap, the residents were evacuated from their homes this past weekend after a massive sinkhole developed underneath the row houses at 181-191 Mountain Street. Though it isn’t entirely clear what caused the sinkhole, there’s a condo tower going up right next door and they’re presently excavating the site. Problems began developing around the start of the month when a water pipe broke, consequently flooding the adjacent pit. This led to the address closest to the construction site being evacuated. A crack noticed at the time grew and forced the subsequent evacuation and demolition.

The residents had to leave with whatever they could carry; the building had to be demolished immediately.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the co-op’s insurer has insisted the incident was a ‘landslide’ and thus an act of god. They refused to compensate for the demolition. The condo developer has also indicated they’re not responsible either.

So a small group of long-time Griffintown residents, some of whom were paying as little as $400 per month in rent, very suddenly lost everything they owned, in addition to their historically significant homes, and found themselves both homeless and somehow responsible for the demolition of their homes.

Today’s news is that three levels of government are going to collaborate in re-building the demolished homes, and that the nearby Bassins du Havre will provide temporary housing for the displaced, though details have yet to be worked out.

Brickfields Concept Rendering - Mountain Street Profile
Brickfields Concept Rendering – Mountain Street Profile

I should point out that the condo tower concept did involve both the integration of a heritage property as well as the re-creation of the ‘human-scale’ of Mountain Street. An antique house was removed from the construction site last year and the developer aimed to re-integrate that structure, along with a reconstructed façade of two other since demolished buildings into the new condo and office complex. Based on the conceptual renderings available, it would seem that this project did intend to maintain, at the very least, the appearance of the former working class suburb.

Today’s unofficial announcement was that the city’s housing department, the provincial housing authority and the South West borough will all participate in the reconstruction of the demolished row houses, and this is fundamentally good news, but it begs the question: what, if anything, is really being done to ensure the long-term preservation of the city’s oldest buildings?

Dinu Bumbaru of Heritage Montréal re-iterated a familiar lament; “…(in Montreal), there’s a disconnect between the discourse on heritage and the action on heritage.”

He’s got a point (and he is the local authority on all matters pertaining to architectural heritage); late last year city inspectors discovered unauthorized alterations and severe structural damage to the former Mount Stephen Club, one of few remaining Square Mile mansions from the late 19th century. Less than a month ago the Gazette reported city inspectors had not visited the site in fifteen months, during which time major excavation work had been undertaken by real-estate developer Tidan.

So now the provincial culture ministry is suing Tidan and they, in turn, have to carefully ‘deconstruct’ the house, retrofit the foundation, and then re-build the house, adding millions of dollars to the total cost of the new hotel.

Had the building been inspected more regularly, perhaps this could all have been avoided.

Lafontaine House on the Overdale Block - Google Street View, May 2015
Lafontaine House on the Overdale Block – Google Street View, May 2015

There are plenty of other examples of the city administration dragging its heels vis-a-vis the city’s architectural heritage. The Snowdon Theatre has sat abandoned for three years and was recently nearly destroyed by a deliberately set fire. The Empress Theatre is supposed to become a cinema, but the city has done almost nothing to prepare it for eventual rehabilitation. Place des Nations is used as a parking lot in the summertime and in winter looks likes the ruins of a futuristic city. The Redpath House was left in such a poor state it was inevitable it would be knocked down, and far more importantly, the Lafontaine House, which much like the Saint Anne Co-op, sits precariously near two large open pits, has no plan for any future use or publicly-minded preservation, despite being the former home of the first Prime Minister of the United Province of Canada and the site of a violent confrontation during the burning of Parliament in 1849.

Lafontaine House is remarkable because its history and heritage had been forgotten entirely. For a very long time it was just a very old house in the since demolished Overdale neighbourhood. It was during the demolition of this neighbourhood (you guessed it, to make way for a condominium project) that Senator Serge Joyal discovered the stately home at the intersection of Overdale and Lucien L’Allier was in fact a building of exceptional historical value.

That was 29 years ago. Overdale was obliterated, the Lafontaine House stood, but no effort has been made at any time since to better protect it or make any use out of it. Today a hotel, apartment tower and condominium towers are going up all around it, with the onus on the property developer to maintain the house’s physical integrity.

Maybe it will become a restaurant…

Similarly, condo and apartment towers are blooming around the now demolished Griffintown row houses near the intersection of Mountain and Wellington, pictured above, which date back to 1875. Perhaps more importantly, they’re one of the very few residential buildings that actually date back to the era in which Griffintown was a predominantly Anglo-Irish working class neighbourhood, and not a marketing device used to sell condominiums.

The ‘Brickfields’ condo project is going up next door to the now demolished row houses, one of several ‘branded living’ condominium complexes that are transforming The Griff. I’m not opposed to this transformation per se; the neighbourhood was gutted and disconnected from the rest of the city for more than forty years. It’s dynamic repopulation is fundamentally a good thing. Griffintown began it’s decline with the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 (a considerable irony, given the community came to be with the construction of the Lachine Canal and Victoria Bridge) and was subsequently re-zoned for light industry in the 1960s. The Bonaventure Expressway further cut the community off from adjacent neighbourhoods, and the parish church of Saint Ann closed in 1970 and was quickly demolished. Around that time the neighbourhood’s population had shrunk to about 800. Thirty years later it was estimated at less than 100.

Today Griffintown is on the rise – literally. The area was rezoned once again in the late 2000s for residential purposes, including medium-sized towers of between 10 and 20 floors, and the rapidly rising population was estimated at over 6,000 in the 2011 census.

While I’m in favour of rehabilitating disused parts of the city and developing parking lots into residential towers, this needs to be done in such a fashion that the architectural and urban heritage of Montreal is preserved, if not promoted. If real-estate developers are inclined to build towers and excavate foundations adjacent to properties of heritage or historical value, then extra care needs to be taken to ensure problems such as with the Mount Stephen House and the Saint Anne’s housing co-op aren’t repeated. In the case of the former it appears that the developer was both careless and did unauthorized work, but that the city was also responsible in that inspections weren’t carried out. In the case of the latter, given the spontaneous decision of three different levels of government to collaborate on rebuilding these homes, there’s the possibility the real-estate developer is not actually at fault, but also that civic authorities may have dropped the ball once again.

I suspect we’ll find out soon enough; lives were nearly ruined. These homes had stood for 142 years and it’s only now that there’s a massive excavation going on right next door that a sinkhole developed, resulting in the demolition of more of our city’s architectural heritage. Without buildings like these, it’s hard to sell Griffintown condos with an appeal to the history and working class roots of the neighbourhood.

Rebuilding these homes is a nice gesture, but they will not be the same homes. Whatever heritage value they had has mostly been lost.

What a gift it would be, for our city’s 375th anniversary, to finally establish a heritage policy with real teeth, such that we could ensure the long-term preservation of our city’s built environment.

Without heritage, Montreal has very little cachet.

Peter v. Peter – Sergakis Threatens McQueen With Lawsuit

So it’s come to this; not even a full week has gone by since ‘sexbargate’ put NDG back on the map, and already the lawyers have been called in.

Projet Montréal City Councillor for NDG, Peter McQueen, has received a cease and desist letter from Peter Sergakis, the restaurant, bar and night club proprietor noted for his opposition to smoking bans on outdoor terraces as much as his predilection for refiling old liquor bottles.

The letter was received at the Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace borough office Friday, the day after the proverbial fan was hit by flying excrement…

Sergakis wasn’t keen on talking when I called Sunday night; he said the bar in question, tentatively called Jersey’s Saloon (doubtless so named for all the glitz and glamour of the exciting New Jersey shore) will open ‘in a week or two.’ He then said he had to go back to bed. It was 8:00 pm.

McQueen was more talkative. He said he’s looking forward to Monday night’s borough council meeting and what decision borough mayor Russell Copeman might take on the issue. The meeting will be held at 7:00 pm (Monday April 4th) in the Cummings Auditorium, at 5151 Chemin de la Cote-Sainte-Catherine. If you want to weigh in on whether NDG needs this bar, feel free to lend your two cents at the meeting.

Given this website is typically read by people with severe ADHD problems, a quick recap. There once was a bar named Maz, and it was a dive that had basically catered the exact same clientele for roughly sixty years. Late last year the proprietors announced it would be closing, as they wanted to retire and couldn’t find anyone interested in running the place. Sergakis stepped in with plans to expand and renovate and create a new western-themed bar & grill. Everything was on the up and up until a video started making the social media rounds late last week, which featured a provocative young woman pouring some unknown liqueur upon her midriff.

A quick side note, she likely needs more experience serving drinks, as alcohol is chiefly ingested orally by mammals, and not via the bellybutton.

Rookie mistake… the important thing is that we’re all learning together.

Anyways, back to the matter at hand.

The promo video gave McQueen and a cavalcade of local yentas the distinct impression this would be a sleazy kind of place that wouldn’t fit in with what NDG ‘is all about’. To get an idea of what the video was like, the helpful minds over at the Postmedia Gazette figured they’d splice in their interview with McQueen with frames from the promo video (and take note, the Gazette had McQueen hold both the mic and his own umbrella for their interview; very professional looking…)

The yentas, and McQueen, did the chat show circuit last Thursday and Friday. McQueen referred to the proposed bar & grill as a ‘sex bar’, Sergakis claimed he didn’t know what that meant, and most of us did so much blow over the weekend we’ve completely forgotten what all the fuss was about.

Peter McQueen, demonstrating the inaccessibility of the recently renovated Vendome Métro station
Peter McQueen, demonstrating the inaccessibility of the recently renovated Vendome Métro station

Oh wait, now I remember: sex bar!

If I suspend reality and let my imagination get the better of me, a sex bar could really liven things up in NDG. I can imagine the long cue of sweaty, video-game addicted virgins excited to punch their v-cards in a straightforward, transactional fashion… the way Capitalist Jesus would doubtless prefer.

But alas, it’s not to be. McQueen admitted to me no such thing really exists (aww, shit) and that in no way should anyone think this is going to be a strip club (which would require a special license the city isn’t handing out any more, and either way wouldn’t make it past the borough’s zoning committee anyways). It isn’t even a revival of the ‘sexy serveuses’ bar from the late 1980s, as those women were typically nude (and occasionally served breakfast!)

But that didn’t stop McQueen from using the term ‘sex bar’ throughout the interview. He staked his claim NDG is family-friendly and, based on the promo video, this kind of a bar, in his opinion, doesn’t fit in with the neighbourhood. But that being said, NDG doesn’t have a civic code that defines what’s allowed and what isn’t. He also felt it necessary to bring up a few other points, which surprisingly included that there’s not much parking around the proposed bar’s location.

That one caught my attention; it’s rare to hear a member of Projet Montréal talk about how a given business needs more parking. McQueen clarified he suspects much of the clientele will be coming in from outside the neighbourhood. He went on to say that he already gets plenty of complaints from residents about teenagers smoking grass in Girouard Park (author’s note: some of them might be unemployed thirty-year-old journalists) and he’s concerned the specific marketing approach taken by Sergakis is only going to draw in the wrong crowd and lead to more complaints.

I can’t make up my mind on this one.

Depending on who you ask Sergakis is either a creepy misogynist who hates the homeless or a hard-working entrepreneur who crawled his way up from the bottom and, despite his age and wealth, still scrubs dishes and tends the grill at his establishments, if and when necessary.

For his part, I’m fairly confident McQueen has his constituents’ interests at heart, but he fundamentally needs to realize we live in a capitalist, free-market society (for better or worse) and that consumers always have the final say in that they vote with their wallets. If the residents of NDG don’t go to this bar, Sergakis will either have to re-tool or ship out altogether.

McQueen told me that if Sergakis opens any other type of bar, there’s no problem.

Which in turn means the issue comes back to the waitresses and bar maids, what they’ll be wearing and how suggestive, flirty and/or provocative they are with patrons. Any attempt to regulate this ‘for the public good’ is inherently problematic; the state has no business telling people what they can and cannot wear and in which contexts individuals can be suggestive.

In an attempt to gain some greater understanding of what’s at play, I took a stroll down Sherbrooke Street on a Sunday night and realized the proposed Jersey’s Saloon is just a few doors down from a maternity and neonatal clothing store that’s well-known as being a ‘safe space’ for breastfeeding mothers.

I can feel worlds about to collide…

Tourisme Montréal actively soliciting Ripley’s to build aquarium, believe it or not.

Ripley's Aquarium of Canada - photo credit to B+H Architects
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada – photo credit to B+H Architects

A La Presse exclusive reports Tourisme Montréal is actively pursuing the Jim Pattison Group to develop an aquarium here in Montreal. Pattison owns the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, as well as Ripley’s Entertainment of Orlando.

As Réjean Bourdeau points out, it’s the second time in fifteen years that the Pattison Group has been approached to build an aquarium here in Montreal. The last attempt was made by the Société du Vieux-Port, which has been conducting surveys and public consultations of late on how to make the Old Port more inviting and interesting.

Then, as now, the Old Port is the likely location for such an attraction, given it’s an established tourism hub and is conveniently located near a body of water. That said, Tourisme Montréal president Yves Lalumière is open to other locations and other developers. As with many things in this city, it’s all very much still up in the air, and nothing as yet is concrete.

What is concrete is the existence of something I would argue is vastly superior to an aquarium. It’s called the Montreal Biodome, it draws about a million people a year and is a fantastic example of what a city can do with surplus Olympic infrastructure. The amazing story of the Biodome’s conception and development will be the subject of a forthcoming article for this website (stay tuned).

Alcan Aquarium promotional photo-montage, ca. 1966
Alcan Aquarium promotional photo-montage, ca. 1966

That aside, the apparent interest in getting a private entertainment firm to build and operate an aquarium in the Old Port is at least in part related to the story of Montreal’s previous aquarium, a ‘Centennial Gift’ from the Alcan Corporation to the City of Montreal, and a component of Expo 67.

The original aquarium was located Ile Sainte-Helene, immediately adjacent to La Ronde. It featured two pavilions, one including the standard galleries of various marine species, and a second, essentially an amphitheater, where trained dolphins put on various demonstrations of their myriad talents. The latter building remains and is recognizable given its copper ‘circus tent’ roof. The pavilion has since been integrated into La Ronde for diverse non-aquarium related purposes.

I find it interesting that fifty years ago two completely different firms each decided it was prudent to gift the City of Montreal with public education facilities, as long as they got to keep the naming rights and the city took care of maintenance and operations. In the same year Alcan delivered an aquarium and Dow Breweries gifted us our first planetarium.

Everything was going along splendidly until a municipal workers’ strike in February 1980, at which point those responsible for feeding the dolphins were either prevented from doing their jobs or, in a fit of worker solidarity, decided not to cross the picket line. Some of the dolphins starved to death in their holding tanks. The aquarium had a hard time recovering after that. The remaining dolphins were sold to something called ‘Flipper’s Sea School’ (since renamed the Dolphin Research Centre) and the aquarium struggled throughout the 80s. The idea to redevelop the aquarium in the Old Port isn’t new either, as the city had a plan in the late 1980s to move it to a more ‘accessible’ location.

That plan fell through around the time of the economic recession of the early 1990s, and as it happened the city’s parks department was already busy developing the Biodome in the old Olympic Velodrome. The aquarium was closed in 1991 with some of its animals transferred to the Biodome which opened the following year in time for the city’s 350th anniversary.

And so we come full circle, renewed interest in developing an aquarium in the Old Port for yet another oddball anniversary.

I’d prefer not to lose more public space in the Old Port to obvious tourist fare, but it seems like the crown agency responsible for the Old Port is hell-bent on occupying every square inch of the place with a cornucopia of attractions that are, generally-speaking, too expensive for locals to bother with.

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, in Toronto, seems successful enough. It has a prime location near the base of the CN Tower and charges thirty dollars a pop, and it’s hard not to be impressed with the walk-through aquariums and wide variety of species they have to offer. However, as Steve Kupferman notes in this 2013 article for Torontoist, the displays are hardly realistic, with little to no effort made to make the habitats look anything like the natural environment.

At the end of the day the Ripley’s Aquarium is infotainment; an attraction without any real substance. Not to say the original Alcan Aquarium was any more of a serious scientific endeavour what with performing dolphins being the centrepiece of the attraction.

And I guess that’s why I feel a bit uneasy about it. Despite the fact that it’s basically been done before, it seems like it wouldn’t fit, like it would impose itself and be fundamentally disconnected from the city it’s set in. An aquarium with an associated research institute and a public education and/or conservation mission would be a different matter, one I could get behind. But just because Toronto has an expensive tourist trap doesn’t mean should we copy them, ‘historic’ cooperation agreements aside.

We should note that the Toronto example, which opened in 2013 at a cost of $130 million, received $30 million in government funding in grants and tax breaks. If there’s sufficient interest in having an aquarium in this city, then either let Pattison assume the total cost of the project, or build a public aquarium using public funds to serve a public good.

Just as long as there’s a clause stipulating the aquarium’s staff still have to feed the animals, even if they’re on strike. This is Montreal, after all. The application of common sense should never be taken for granted.

Snowdon Theatre Fire, The Lowest Point & Social Media

Still frame from Snapchat of the Snowdon Theatre Fire - posted to mtlurb
Still frame from Snapchat of the Snowdon Theatre Fire – posted to mtlurb

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.

In an astounding coincidence, on the very same day that photographs, like the one above, emerged online of several teenagers apparently starting a fire on the second floor of the abandoned Snowdon Theatre, this video of several people galavanting through the Métro tunnels was posted to YouTube and widely distributed on local social media networks.

Montreal police are now both searching for the teens suspected of starting the fire and have opened an investigation into how the Métro tunnels (and trains) were accessed by the creators of ‘Lowest Point in Montreal’.

In the latter case, the film crew accessed one tunnel while the Métro was still in operation, and then proceeded to make their way into the rear conductor’s cabin of an operational train, locking the door when accosted by an STM employee. As La Presse notes, there’s a safety issue inasmuch as there’s a security issue. It was just last week that Daesh sympathizers detonated bombs in a Brussels Métro station; the film crew in the ‘Lowest Point’ video had access to Métro controls, the track, and service tunnels and the various equipment kept in those tunnels. My guess is they were probably down in the tunnels for more than hour, and evaded STM security throughout.

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.

I’m torn, really. I feel creeping adulthood and my gut says “don’t go exploring Métro tunnels”, especially not when the trains are actually in operation. It’s immensely dangerous, not to mention inconvenient for thousands or tens of thousands of people who may be affected by a temporary line closure. I think the code ‘900-02’ announces a suspected infiltration of the tunnels; if either an STM employee or the system’s CCTV system suspects there’s someone in the tunnels, they have to call it in, close it down and investigate.

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.

Gravenor insinuates that there’s “…a conscious or subconscious will to eradicate this beautiful Art Deco building and what it symbolically represents.”

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?

Adieu Jean

Jean Lapierre - photo credit to La Presse Canadienne
Jean Lapierre – photo credit to La Presse Canadienne

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.

Quebec media in general and the political community of the entire nation are in shock. Just yesterday, Lapierre announced his father had passed after a long struggle with Parkinson’s.

Jean was an expert commentator; he lived and breathed politics, and unlike many politicians said precisely what he was thinking, unafraid of any potential criticism. He was first elected at the young age of 23 to represent Shefford and fought on the side of the Trudeau Liberals in the 1980 Referendum. He’d remain as Shefford’s Liberal MP until 1990 when he left the party in the wake of the Meech Lake Accord’s failure. He then helped to found the Bloc Québécois, though in his own words he described himself as soft nationalist, wanting a level playing field for Quebec. Disillusioned, he would later leave the Bloc and federal politics altogether to begin a successful career in broadcasting.

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.

In my time working as a chase producer for CJAD I often spoke with Jean to arrange interviews. He had two regular slots on CJAD, one in the morning and again in the afternoon, and was as comfortable and effective discussing the spectrum of Canadian politics in English as in French. We was a busy man, constantly working. I only met him once, but made sure to congratulate him for his work in Chantal Hébert’s seminal work on the 1995 Quebec Referendum, The Morning After.

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.

Adieu Jean, on se souviendra.

Three-Alarm Fire Nearly Destroys Historic Snowdon Theatre

Snowdon Theatre Fire - March 26th 2016
Snowdon Theatre Fire – March 26th 2016 – credit to Eric Zaidan

That was a close one.

According to the Journal de Montréal, the fire at Montreal’s historic Snowdon Theatre, though severe, was not so bad it weakened the structure. Damage seems to have been concentrated on the roof. The three-alarm blaze involved 90 firefighters and 35 fire-fighting vehicles. So far so good: excellent response, no casualties, the building’s still standing. Firefighters are investigating to determine what started the blaze, as the former theatre is abandoned and – at least technically – unoccupied. Fire’s don’t habitually start themselves…

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.

The Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace (CDN-NDG herein) borough currently owns the building and quietly put it up for sale back in January. They’re accepting bids until May 1st, though all bidders must be able to put up a $10,000 guarantee just to be considered.

Here’s where things get interesting: local journalist Kristian Gravenor filed an access-to-information request last fall to find out what the borough feels are necessary repairs to make the building usable again.

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 for three years the Snowdon sat vacant and neither the city proper nor the borough did anything to protect, preserve or promote this building. And it’s not like we’re discussing a little-known property tucked away out of sight either; the Snowdon Theatre’s iconic marquee is one of the few things worth looking at from the bottom of the Décarie Trench.

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.

Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign
Snowdon Theatre Exit Sign

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.

The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-late 1990s
The Snowdon Theatre, post-1988 renovation, circa mid-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.

Contact:

Borough Mayor Russell Copeman

City Councillor Marvin Rotrand

City Councillor Peter McQueen

City Councillor Lionel Perez

City Councillor Magda Popeanu

And on a final note, any Montrealphile with an interest in this city’s once grand collection of ‘movie palaces’ ought to purchase Dane Lanken’s book on the subject post-haste.