That was a close one.
According to the Journal de MontrÃ©al, 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 DÃ©carie 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.
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.
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.