Tag Archives: Urban Conservation

The Ironic Demise of the Redpath Mansion

The Redpath House in better times...
The Redpath House in better times…

In the infinite wisdom of the Parti Québécois’ Cameroonian-born culture minister, the Redpath House is officially lacking in any historical or architectural merit worthy of its protection. The temporary injunction preventing the Sochaczevski family’s planned demolition of the house has been lifted and the structure will likely be demolished just as soon as possible. I can understand why they’d want to, given how they’ve been jerked around in the past.

That said, I’d prefer the owners of the defiantly anti-péquiste Suburban newspaper turn around – just for shits and giggles – and excoriate Maka Kotto for not recognizing the heritage value of the last remaining home of the family of the guy who financed the construction of the Lachine Canal.

Now wouldn’t that be grand?

Of course it’s not going to happen. There’s profit to be made.

And let’s not forget it’s in the long-term political interest of the PQ to gently erase the trace of Québec’s Anglophone community, and the Square Mile is as good a place as any to start not giving a shit.

The belief that Anglophone capitalists were recklessly redeveloping the city and destroying an element of our cultural aesthetic was somewhat prevalent among the early urban preservation movement and sovereignist movement, and indeed there was a lot of overlap in terms of public demonstrations of the time. Sovereignists, favouring a more socially-conscious method of urban redevelopment that encouraged public repossession and conversion of heritage properties by the state, were quick to join demonstrations against the destruction of entire neighbourhoods and iconic mansions. It was somewhat ironic, given that the people of the Square Mile during it’s golden era (from 1880 to 1930) were often thought of as those who oppressed working class French Canadians. In many ways the excess of the Square Mile and its people (who controlled 70% of the nation’s wealth for a time) played a role in the development of the Quebec independence movement.

In his judgement as culture minister, Maka Kotto believes the Redpath House is of no *ahem* national heritage value.

Really?

I’ll grant that the home isn’t the actual house of John Redpath (but I’m fairly certain is the last of the Redpath family’s Square Mile homes), and I agree with the minister for deploring that nothing was done back when the house was in better shape.

But the minister simply asked that the owner do something to remind passers-by that the home once stood there and should be recognized.

Like a plaque. Or maybe the Sochaczevski’s will call their new condo building ‘Le Redpath’.

Oooh! Sounds historical!

I just don’t understand why the province wouldn’t mandate that the new building incorporate part of the old. I’m not keen on this generally speaking but when it’s the only option in lieu of total demolition I’d go for it. Clearly the walls aren’t in that bad a shape – they’re still standing after thirty years of abandonment. At least if the few remaining Queen Anne style architectural details were preserved it wouldn’t be a total loss.

Either way, very disappointing. Pretty much everyone loses with the exception of the family who was jerked around for a generation by an incompetent heritage preservation bureaucracy.

And they’ve been on the losing end for thirty years. It’s hard to feel bad for rich people who find themselves unable to make more money, or feel good for them when they finally get some justice and can proceed to tear down some history to put up another god forsaken condominium in a high-density neighbourhood.

So I’m all kinds of conflicted on this one.

Ultimately I can agree with the minister – something should have been done long ago and shame on those responsible thirty years ago for not reacting as people today would have preferred.

You can understand why this really doesn’t make me feel any better. Blaming people from long ago for making poor decisions does nothing to protect the past from future development.

The Redpath Mansion – Now What?

Redpath House - Credit: Guillaume St-Jean, 2005
Redpath House – Credit: Guillaume St-Jean, 2005

Good news in the world of architectural heritage preservation (boy I like writing that) as culture minister Maka Kotto announced a thirty-day moratorium on the planned demolition of the historic Redpath Mansion.

The culture ministry used a law stipulating that if the government feels there’s a ‘real threat of significant degradation of a property that may have heritage value’ it can stop work for about a month during which time it would (drum roll) produce a study concerning the building and it’s architectural and/or historic value.

So…where exactly does this leave us?

The government has a month to produce a study about a building Heritage Montreal already likely has a massive dossier on. I’m not sure what new conclusions the government hopes to arrive at. The home on Ave. de la Musée was once owned by the John Redpath, owner of the eponymous sugar refinery and builder of the Lachine Canal.

*Note – come to think of it, I’ve seen this building named after Frederick Redpath as wellm so this will need to be cleared up.

So there’s the short answer as to whether the house has any historic value. Montreal simply wouldn’t have become the metropolis it is today without the Lachine Canal. Mr. Redpath is as good an example as any of the kinds of wealthy industrialists that once drove the economy of this city (and province, and country) and who populated the Square Mile district over one hundred years ago (note – it was never actually referred to as the Golden Square Mile).

Also, the home was the site of the grisly murder of two Redpaths, a murder unsolved to this day – see more here.

As to the architecture, the building is significant in that it’s one of the few remaining examples of Queen Anne style architecture, and was designed by the noted architect Sir Andrew Taylor (who also designed the Redpath and Osler libraries at McGill) and constructed circa. 1885-1886.

Unfortunately, the building has been left to crumble, an excellent case of ‘demolition via neglect’.

It’s significant in that respect too, and this is why, despite the building’s poor shape, I’m glad this injunction will prevent it’s demolition.

In sum, I want it to continue standing forevermore, and I want nothing to be done to it to save it.

I’d very much like for this city to have a permanent ruin, a once gorgeous, impressive, ludicrously well-appointed Gilded Age mansion destroyed by greed and political incompetence.

Let it stand, a testament to itself.

Plus, I’m curious to see how long it will stand if we just let nature take its course.

It’s been vacant for more than thirty years, and a portion of the home was demolished prior to the previous injunction filed against the rightful owners of the home, the Sochaczevski family, also the proprietors of The Suburban.

How the situation unfolded works something like this. First, the Sochaczevski’s purchased the house with the intention of having it demolished so that a condo tower could be built on the site. Apparently there was no problem until Heritage Montreal/Sauvons Montreal caught wind of it and had a last-minute injunction filed with the provincial authorities. this was done, but not before part of the house had already been demolished. Then there was a lot of legal wrangling in which nothing was done for many years, the building left to crumble.

Now the owners are making yet another attempt to develop a new building on the site – though this time it’ll be for ‘student housing’ (though not actually affiliated with any known university, nor offering the coziness of sleeping in something which is designed buy the same companies who build prisons…) i.e. really expensive flop houses for wealthy foreign students.

And once again someone has stepped in to prevent the demolition from taking place.

We’re literally back to square one.

From what I know the Sochaczevski’s haven’t been compensated one iota for all this dicking around.

And it’s not like Heritage Montreal or the Quebec government has any idea what to do with the building either. In fact, no one does, and because of the poor condition it’s in, no one wants to front the cash to fix it up.

The owners can be blamed for letting it go to waste, but at the same time, it’s ridiculous for us to have heritage preservation laws on the books if there’s no compensation nor any follow through.

It’s quite the penalty to the owners but it also demands that the city and province have a plan and a better way to deal with problems such as these. And you’d think we’d have figured out that solution quite some time ago, given architectural preservation drives our tourism industry.

So all to say I’m encouraged by the government’s decision but would love to get a little further than simply delaying demolition. We need a plan and I don’t think the PQ is going to start dishing out money to renovate a Gilded Age mansion with no plan regarding its use after the job is complete. And the Redpath House is just the tip of the iceberg.

What about the Lafontaine House, crumbling away as the last piece of the forgotten Overdale neighbourhood. Louis-Hyppolyte Lafontaine was arguably more important than even John Redpath and his house is in slightly better condition and there’s no plan at all to save it from being demolished.

Then there’s the Notman House, also historically significant. Last I heard it was being used for local start-ups but that was a while ago and so the project may have fizzled. The old Dandurand Wines office on Sherbrooke (the Forget House?) has been empty for some time, but at the very least is being maintained.

Long story short, the city, province and federal government need to coordinate to save these homes and repurpose them for the public’s use. The same can and should be said for our city’s many churches, which have become exceptionally important not for religious and spiritual reasons, but because they provide vitally necessary space to community groups. As neat as it might be to convert one or two old churches into condominiums and/or spas, we need to remember that these buildings fundamentally belong to the public and not the highest bidder.

But again, without any kind of organization in place to transition these buildings into new roles and secure funding, we’re at as much of a risk of losing significant amounts of our architectural heritage inasmuch as the physical realms of community and civic engagement.

Which in turn begs the question – what is the point of architectural preservation advocacy groups if they’re limited to simply pointing out dangers and cataloguing what has been lost and what might be lost in the future?

This city needs a heritage trust.

The Oldest Buildings in Montréal

New York Life Insurance Bldg

So just how old is this city, really?

We talk a lot about the city’s history and architectural heritage, of its old world charm. And of course we know that the city was founded by the Kingdom of France in 1642.

It may surprise you to learn that much of our historic architecture isn’t actually that old; there are very few 17th century buildings left on the island of Montréal.

The remnants of the Fort de la Montagne date back to 1694 and can still be found today on the grounds of the Collège de Montréal at Fort and Sherbrooke. These were long believed to be the oldest buildings in Montréal, but new evidence suggests that parts of the Sulpician Seminary adjacent to Notre Dame Basilica (1829) actually date back to 1687, though much of what remains today would have been integrated into a large renovation which occurred in 1710.

These would be the two oldest remaining structures within urban core of Montréal, but recent civic amalgamations have brought the single oldest inhabitable building on the entire island into the fold. The LeBer-LeMoyne House sits here at the intersection of LaSalle and Lachine by the western tip of the Lachine Canal. It dates to 1671 and is a national historic site owing to its importance in the development of the fur trade.

Victoria Square Historic

Further west, parts of the remnants of Fort Senneville may date from 1692 when the French Governor rebuilt the original 1671 construction, itself destroyed by fire, but this is difficult to ascertain given how little is actually left. Last I heard there were parts of a stone windmill and parts of the foundation.

In Pointe-St-Charles you’ll find the Maison Saint-Gabriel a farm house dating from 1698 which had been used by the Congrégation Notre Dame as a school, among other things, back in the French Colonial Era.

Chateau Ramezay, across the street from the Hotel-de-Ville (1878, rebuilt in 1922) dates back to 1705 with certainty, as its regal and political importance kept it very much in use until it was developed into one of the city’s first public heritage and cultural sites. The Chateau competes with the Sulpician Seminary as the oldest continually used, continuously important, building.

But this is about it. Old Montréal and the Old Port dates primarily to the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Historic properties in the Golden Square Mile, Shaugnessy Village, Saint Henri, Westmount, Mile End and Plateau are roughly as old.

Port of Montreal from Bonsecours Market ca. 1900

We lack buildings from much of the 18th century thanks to a series of fires which destroyed the city several times over the course of that century. By the early 1800s new fire-prevention measures had been implemented, including the use of tin shingles in lieu of cedar (a point honoured in the mural at McGill Station, near the words ‘La Sauvegarde’). The pre-Confederation part of the 19th century witnessed a revival in ‘Habitant’ architecture dating back to the mid-17th century (in design and materials used) among local architects, while American and British firms worked on larger public constructions, such as the Bonsecours Market (1847) and Saint Patrick’s Basilica (1847) and the original Parliament Building (destroyed by a Tory mob in 1849 and today the location of a converted fire hall at Place d’Youville. In 1815 the old fortifications were torn down, allowing the city to begin expanding outward. In this sense, everything you consider to be city outside of Old Montreal has really only been in use for about two-hundred years, though most of the buildings were built in the last half-century.

That said we nonetheless have a few 18th century examples remaining, including the Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel (otherwise known as the Sailor’s Cathedral) built in 1771 on the ruins of another church. There also still stands the Papineau House, built in 1785.

Dorchester Square Historic

Rue de la Frippone owes its name to the Old French government warehouse that once stood on the site, as the government officials would habitually fleece the stocks for their own use. Thus, cheat street.

I can imagine there may be some old treasures lost about Rue Saint-Paul, Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Saint-Gabriel and Saint-Francois-Xavier as well, but the prevalence of ‘heritage design’ in the 19th century makes it a difficult task to ascertain just how old something actually is.

Suffice it to say, what we generally consider to be the ‘architecturally significant’ old part of the city is only about 100-160 years old, not terribly representative of our nearly 400 year local history. In effect, the most tangible reminder of our colonial era is a system of roads laid down by surveyor Dollier de Casson back in the late-17th century.

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I drew my inspiration for this article from a City of Montreal tourist guidebook I have that was published around 1900 or so (photographs illustrating this article were scanned form it). Imagine that when this book was published, much of what is now considered to be the historic old city was then very new and very much in use. In fact you likely would have found many more older structures outside Vieux-Montréal back then, ironically enough, as this was then the city centre, and between 1880 and 1930 the focus of a massive redevelopment.

In this book it discusses what would have been the oldest structures in the city back at the turn of the 20th century, and as you might imagine the aforementioned examples are included. However it also suggests that a building on Rue Saint-Vincent may have once belonged to Monsieur De Catalogne, contractor of the Lachine Canal of 1700. The building here in white may be that house. There’s another on Rue Saint-Louis which also looks quite old, an odd small single-family home on a comparatively large plot near the municipal courthouse.

Windsor Station Antique

I think we’re well positioned to maintain a considerable portion of what currently exists in Vieux-Montréal, which will be far more impressive and significant at the end of this century. If we want to keep this rather pristine jewel of Ancien Regime based late-Victorian cityscape we’ll have to maintain (if not increase) the local population, introduce new services (both commercial and civic) and facilitate a renewal of purpose for the citizenry at large. Better public transit access wouldn’t hurt either, but options are limited (for better or for worse) to a re-introduction of trams. My understanding is that the ground might not be stable enough to permit Métro access further south than the Orange Line, but of course if trams were introduced they’d need to operate as independently of vehicular traffic as possible. It would be very much in keeping with the style and design of Vieux-Montréal if we were to re-introduce trams on Rue de la Commune, Notre-Dame, and Saint-Antoine with intersecting lines at Berri, Saint-Urbain, McGill and Peel, connecting to Berri-UQAM, Place-d’Armes & Place-des-Arts, Square-Victoria, Bonaventure & Peel respectively.

DSC06219

It’s a high concentration of transit in a small but high-traffic area and to secure a greater range of service optimization it may be worthwhile to focus it on a kind of site-specific transit system optimized for the entirety of the Old Port, Old Montreal, Griffintown, Goose Village and Cité-du-Havre/Parc Jean-Drapeau. It would make a lot of sense to people – when you’re in the old part of town you use a trams, an ‘old’ yet still practical form of public transit. And who knows, design it well enough and we may create something truly fitting, wondrously appropriate and efficient as well aesthetically pleasing. It could be a big hit.

But this itself is predicated on the notion that Old Montreal could be more valuable if it were a more viable place to live. We’d be wise not to build modern or post-modern residential towers here, but revisit the style that remains. I’d like to see the few remaining vacant lots filled with new versions of classic Montreal Beaux-Arts architecture, as well as some building variety as well – a good portion of Griffintown already feels too much like a series of large warehouses converted into horizontal apartments; throwing in some classic small-scale buildings could help solidify the rustic charm of our former frontier town. I said before we’re well positioned – interest in this area is generally high even if it’s localized economy is currently too negatively impacted by moderate drops in annual tourist revenue. Adding more people and the means for a viable community to form would help counter this problem, and would add the possibility for multi-generational investment in heritage properties. Fill up the vacant spaces with the buildings required to create a community and ensure the design fits, and then give it its purpose-built mass-transit system and Vieux-Montréal would transform from tourism hub to neighbourhood – a place where one comes from as opposed to a place one merely visits.

DOminion Square Historic

It’s not just that we want to preserve old buildings, function must be preserved as well.

Montréal doesn’t just have a collection of old buildings, we have an old city, an antique urbanism. And it’s viability and utility to the metropolis (for it could be an obscenely wealthy neighbourhood to boot) is tied quite directly to careful planning from City Hall. And this is because we expect the city to, if nothing else, at least preserve the historic built environment, that has now for several generations made every Montrealer feel like they come from a place truly different and distinguished.

Nonuments

(artist unknown); from the foot of Mount Royal facing northeast, upon the introduction electric light
Crystal Palace (Montreal ca. 1879 – artist unknown); from the foot of Mount Royal facing northeast across Fletcher’s Field, upon the introduction electric light in the city.

If I may be so bold as to coin a term, nonuments.

Broadly defined, a former monument that, for whatever reason, no longer serves any real purpose. An ex-landmark, no longer on anyone’s horizon. A kind of de-facto folly. Broader still, the realm of monuments that never were, conceptualized and forgotten. I would consider such breadth of a term only because, even if never actualized they often left traces of themselves; shadows of what could have been.

I think you’d find nonuments in most cities – hell, some cities could be described as nonumental (such as Downtown Detroit – there’s a definite intersection between my idea of a nonument and urban decay, such as has been seen in the de-industrialization of the Great Lakes/Saint Lawrence/Hudson River conurbation; example). And of course, as you might imagine, I’ve compiled a list of sorts of notable local examples.

There’s something I find particularly sad about these nonuments – it’s the idea a close-knit social group, such as a city, would lose a bit of its prestige, of its demonstrable wealth, the built environment as tribute to local success. I suppose it’s the loss of something that once inspired many people, often simply by looking at it, or the idea that we’d forget the significance.

But perhaps I’m being overly sentimental. Most of these examples could be revived in one way or another.

In any event Рenough pontificating. Some Montr̩al nonuments for your consideration.

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Alcan Aquarium as it appears today as an underused pavilion at La Ronde

Top spot goes to the Alcan Aquarium, operated from 1967 to 1991. The Aquarium was once considered to be among the very finest in the world, and it sported an extensive collection of species, in addition to performing dolphins and a colony of penguins in a reconstructed Antarctic habitat. Back in the day the city was far more directly implicated in the operation of local attractions and as a result of a city-workers strike in the early 1980s several dolphins perished due to neglect, their care-takers apparently unable to gain access to tend to these poor mammals. Attendance pretty much nose-dived after that.

The two buildings still exist, though they are now part of La Ronde. I’d love to have another Aquarium, though I’m not sure if the former facilities could be re-used for that purpose, given that they’ve had their interiors re-modelled for vastly different purposes. This is part of the trouble of these nonuments, it’s not always possible to resurrect them in any meaningful way, and Parc Jean-Drapeau has an unfortunate number of examples. Ergo, it would likely be simpler to build a new aquarium in the most modern and sustainable fashion, and locate such a facility in a more convenient location, either in the Old Port or Cité-du-Havre.

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Montreal’s Crystal Palace, in it’s last location in what is today’s Parc Jeanne-Mance

Next, Montréal’s Crystal Palace. Built for the Montreal Industrial Exhibition of 1860, it was based off the plans of its namesake in London, and was used for similar purposes, albeit on a smaller, more provincial scale. Its original location roughly corresponds with Palace Alley downtown, as it was moved in 1878 to Fletcher’s Field as noted above. It would continue serving as a kind of multi-purpose exhibition space until consumed by fire in 1896. The move to Fletcher’s Field would play a significant role in the development of modern ice-hockey, as McGill skating and hockey clubs used the Palace as a natural indoor ice-rink in winter months. The first known photograph of a uniformed hockey team playing on an indoor ice-rink was taken at the Crystal Palace in 1881 in a location somewhat ironically currently largely used for beach volleyball in the summer.

Facilities of this type aren’t much in fashion anymore, and we’re not running short on exhibition space. The idea of having a large, public, interactive cultural space in this part of the city still seems attractive to me, perhaps as either a public market or museum of local natural and social history.

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SS France

Our third entry never made it past the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, the funnels were too high.

Mayor Drapeau had this idea back in the mid-1970s that Montréal would acquire the recently decommissioned ocean liner SS France and use it as the Olympic Village for the 21st Olympiad (still a novel idea IMO). He further proposed that the ship could later be used as a permanently moored floating casino, hotel, resort and conference centre. Again, not the worst idea I’ve ever heard. The SS France had already stayed in Montréal during Expo Summer, as an extension of the French Pavilion.

The story goes that the ship would have had a hard time getting under the Québec Bridge, though it had managed to do so in 1967, and ultimately the mayor would have his arm twisted into constructing the Olympic Village we know today. The Olympic Village was, much like the beleaguered Stadium, inappropriately designed for the local climate and neighbourhood, becoming a city within it itself as opposed to the centre of a residential revival in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Petite-Patrie areas.

If we ever host another Olympiad, we should seriously consider purchasing an ocean liner and use it as a floating convention centre, hotel, resort and casino after the games. It would add a lot of life to the Old Port and, given that it would be a cruise ship or ocean liner, would of course come equipped with everything needed to begin operations, immediately. Not to mention it would look good too, and could give the Old Port and Old Montreal a year-round tourist-driven economic activity generator.

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Montréal-Paris Tower, proposal mock-up

Our fourth entry is the Montréal-Paris tower, designed to be the principle Montréal pavilion (of sorts, in the end the city would not have its own pavilion at Expo 67, or if you’d prefer, the city was the exhibition) and the culmination of Mayor Drapeau’s desire that Montréal have an iconic tower. He would eventually develop the Olympic Tower, delivered late in 1987 and aesthetically unimproved since, a veritable static time-machine, though our existing tower pales in comparison to what he had intended in 1964. The land intended for the tower is today a vast parking lot at the easternmost tip of Ile-Ste-Hélène.

I’m still a fan of our mountain serving as the best view in our city; would love to see this space redeveloped into a vast parkland of sorts, it’s a nice place for a picnic. The amount of land dedicated to cars at Parc Jean-Drapeau and vehicular traffic is far too high, in my opinion. I can imagine an integrated, automated parc-centric mass transit system, such as the former Expo Express easing the dependency on automobiles at the park and, if suitably connected to the downtown, potentially serve to better unify the diverse collection of activities on the islands.

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Expo 67 Opening Ceremonies at Place des Nations

At the other end of Ile-Ste-Hélène, the abandoned Place des Nations, once the great entrance to Expo 67, a place in which roughly fifty million people passed through over six months in 1967. It was the first stop along the Expo Express LRT after the ‘Expo pre-game show’ along Avenue Pierre-Dupuy in the Cité-du-Havre. This is what the Cité-du-Havre looked like in 1967:

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This was once Montréal

Place des Nations was a large public plaza attached to a major transit station, with regularly-scheduled performances and ceremonies. It wouldn’t be of any use in this function today given it’s no longer attached much to anything, no longer serves as the entryway to tomorrowland, but the area is nonetheless rather picturesque, especially along the water’s edge. I enjoy this space very much, as there are typically so few people around, and you can enjoy the tonic of Montréal’s river weather and feel someone alone standing in the midst of a roaring river, surrounded on all sides by examples of our urban reality. The trees have grown up and the whole area has the feel of a kind of post-modern ruin. I’d say a must see as it is, but it wouldn’t be so bad if this public space were renovated and actually used by the public. Of all the nonuments on this list, Place des Nations could easily be made to be something worthwhile again, I think it’s just a matter of giving people a reason to go there, and find its purpose.

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The gutted interior of the Montreal Forum

Our final entry, though i’m sure I’ll think of additional examples later on, is the saddest entertainment complex I can think of – the former Montreal Forum.

The winningest team in pro-hockey’s greatest shrine is an underused shopping mall, multiplex cinema and poorly conceived entertainment hub. It could have been transformed into anything and I’d argue it still can. The Pepsi Forum (or whatever it’s called today) doesn’t really work, and there’s an absolutely massive quantity of unused space within the building.

I’ve always felt that the location is ideally suited for a major performance venue. I think it’s all that’s missing from the Atwater/Cabot Square area – a socio-cultural anchor that draws in large quantities of locals on a regular basis for the purpose of seeing a show of one kind or another. Something that would help stimulate the development of a ‘Western Downtown’ entertainment hub centred on the new Forum, with ample bars, restaurants, bistros and the like.

Today the area has a bit of a ‘has-been/once-was’ reputation I think is directly attributed to the loss of the forum as our city’s principle sports and entertainment venue. Re-developing the building has certain advantages, in that there’s not much to preserve of the physical building aside from it’s shell, and there’s a vast amount of space within the current building which is completely unused. Ergo, it’s possible current tenants could be relocated within the building’s basement with a new performance space built on top. A major re-design of the façade would be required because, quite frankly, it’s an eyesore as is.

A concert hall/ performance venue of 2-5,000 seats would certainly attract a lot of small business opportunities, let alone stimulate additional residential development. Furthermore, an ideal redevelopment of the Forum would involve a direct extension of the Underground City between the Forum, Alexis-Nihon and Atwater Métro station. Considering our limited downtown space options in terms of large-scale, high-capacity performance venues, reviving the Forum as such a facility could have the desired effect of returning its status as lieu de mémoire and securing a wealth injection for an otherwise somewhat downtrodden part of the city.

I think there’s something worse reconsidering here.

We should never have lost those dolphins…

Let’s make this an election issue {no.4} – Montréal’s Victoria Rink, birthplace of hockey.

A fancy dress ball at the Victoria Rink, Montreal (circa 1865, or, when Jefferson Davis lived here).

So a recent article on Coolopolis piqued my curiosity. It features an interview Kristian Gravenor did with a man by the name of Billy Georgette, who has been doggedly pursuing local officials, politicians and people of influence to do something about the former Victoria Rink.

For those of you unfamiliar with the rink, it is the long, squat brownstone building between Stanley and Drummond, just north of Boul. René-Lévesque. It is currently a parking garage, a role it assumed in 1925 when the arena closed to the public as it had become obsolete. It was first built in 1862 at what would have then been the very heart of the Square Mile neighbourhood. It was an instant success, with the Victoria Skating Club reaching some 2,000 Montrealers by the 1870s. It was a natural ice rink, meaning that it could only be used when the surface could be frozen over. Though this is impractical for a modern professional arena, back then hockey was in its infancy, and this arrangement would have made it exceptionally easy to use the space for other purposes, such as concerts, receptions, congresses and the like. It was first in a long tradition of multiple-use venues in Downtown Montréal.

So what? It’s an old rink, what’s so special? you might be asking. Well, it is at the Victoria Rink that the first organized game of modern ice hickey was played, in 1875.
That, and it set the dimensions for the modern ice-hockey surface – roughly the distance between Stanley and Drummond.
Oh, and it was also the location of the first Stanley Cup game (which we won).
And it was the first building in Canada to be electrified.
Then Edison and Tesla showed up.
Not to mention Lord Stanley, who took in his first hockey game (which we won) at the rink, and was reported to have been thoroughly delighted with the spirited game.

Suffice it to say, this building is a major historical landmark, for Montréal, Québec and Canada.

And it sucks that it has survived for no other reason than the fact that people need a place to park. Oh well, at least its still with us. And it deserves better. This building ought to be a shrine, and there’s a movement afoot to do just that. The word is that certain people may be interested in seeing this building converted into a new facility, though the question remains as to what exactly it ought to be.

So, on a lark, here’s what I’d propose.

We need look no further than the building’s history to see what should be done with this building. What if we were to convert it back into a functional ice-rink? Take it a step further – what if we were to endeavour to bring the building back to its original grandeur? An authentic Victorian skating rink, renovated to look as it did in 1875, when the first hockey game was played. Perhaps we’d choose to forgo the gas-light chandeliers, but you get the idea. In the spirit of urban architectural heritage preservation, this project has all the potential to be a great achievement for the citizens of Montréal.

In addition to recreating the ice surface, a portion of the building, or perhaps an adjoining structure (there’s a big empty lot immediately to the North), could feature a ‘Montreal Hockey Museum’, though I can imagine the main draw would be simply to skate around a beautifully restored antique skating rink. A similar idea has been applied to the design of modern baseball stadiums in the States, and there are specially designed ballparks for the modern deadball leagues becoming popular down South (in essence, its baseball played the way it was when originally created, in the Antebellum Period). I have a feeling it wouldn’t be long before ‘old-time-hockey’ leagues were formed here – what a draw that would be!

And finally, much like the original, it would be a multi-purpose facility, and could easily be used as a medium sized general-purpose venue, which our city happens to be lacking. The location is exceptional, and there’s a well-developed local industry capable of not only thoroughly renovating this building, but further able to restore it to its former grandeur. From everything I’ve read, the building, due to its prominence in the lives of the late-19th century Montréal bourgeois is well described, was quite beautiful. There’s no question it is a heritage building, but like too many other heritage buildings, it survives without sufficient recognition of its historic importance. The best way to this history justice is to ensure the building’s use, in perpetuity. Moreover, Montréal needs a hockey museum, because hockey is a social phenomenon here, and a quintessential part of our lives.

What can I say further? What do you think we should do with the Victoria Rink?

The Empress Theatre – A landmark in limbo

The Empress Theatre, from across Sherbrooke Street West in Girouard Park, NDG - Fall 2008

The Empress Theatre is back in the hands of the Borough of Cote-des-Neiges/ Notre-Dame-de-Grace, and the City is calling on the public for suggestions on what to do with the 84 year-old theatre.

CTV Montreal reports that after a 12-year effort to develop the former theatre into a community cultural centre, the borough has decided to reclaim the building and the reigns as to the project’s direction. This Fall they’ll be hearing new and revised proposals for the site, which has been abandoned since an electrical fire gutted much of the interior back in 1992.

I’ve had the chance to correspond with several people involved with the revitalization project over the years, and have even had the chance to go inside and see the potential of this building. It’s unreal. It has that warm fuzzy feeling large empty buildings slowly being reclaimed by nature give off.

Unfortunately, I’ve also seen the damage, and there is a dearth of investment capital for theatre renovation these days, as one might imagine. Back last August renovation work was estimated at $11 million and the City was inclined to support some of the work, but the project otherwise had to finance itself.

This in turn leads me to one of the major sticking points of the project: how will it generate revenue? It would seem as though this is not just a sticking point for myself, but for the project as a whole. No one knows how to come up with the capital if not for government grants and private donations. What I found curious was that there didn’t seem to be a plan for use of the space as a performance venue. While it was hoped that the site would become a permanent home to a theatre company, there were no other plans to generate revenue through performance, which is exactly what this kind of a theatre was designed to do.

The Empress was built in 1927 as an Egyptian-styled ‘atmospheric theatre’ with a comparatively high seating capacity, featuring a balcony and boxes. The ornate interiors were designed by world-renowned theatre designer Emmanuel Briffa, who had also designed the interiors of a host of other Montreal theatres – almost none of which survive today. There isn’t much to salvage, and indeed any revitalization of this space, if it were to be done to resurrect the aesthetic of Briffa so as to do tribute to him, would necessitate additional costs to incorporate what remains of the original design into a cohesive reproduction of the original, something which may be possible thanks to the rather large qualities of media collected for just such a reconstruction. But more to the spirit of the theatre, the Empress was designed to be used with vaudeville in mind, and was thus inherently designed to be multi-functional, providing a wide spectrum of performance entertainment possibilities. It was well known in this respect.

Click here for an ultra high-resolution picture of the former Cinema V from back in 1982.

Today, the Empress is a hollow shell of its former self. It has been abandoned since the fire in 1992 and is slowly being eroded by time and the elements. If nothing is done, it will go the way of the Seville and York Theatres. The City has been described as having seized the Empress from the non-profit Empress Cultural Centre which up until recently was in-charge of finding a developer interested in revitalizing the dilapidated theatre.

Seize sounds overly dramatic, given that no one has the capital to redevelop the theatre, ownership of a semi-abandoned too-dangerous-for-admittance building seems tenuous for all parties concerned. It’s a miracle the building is at least structurally sound – for the moment.

The interior is dark, stark, and filled with all the goodies an urban explorer goes looking for. As you can imagine, the people in charge of the revitalization effort aren’t too pleased with the explorers, who inadvertently drive up insurance costs.

And so it is, back to the public for calls and considerations. What to do with an old theatre that could be saved and put to good use for the community by providing a much-needed performing arts venue, if only someone was prepared to put between 10 and 15 million dollars into an obstinately altruistic endeavour? What to do indeed!

It’s profoundly naive to think someone’s going to come up with this kind of capital if the project has no hope of generating revenue. This is a double-penalty to the initial investor, as there would remain the issue of financing the yearly operating costs of whatever cultural activities going on inside. None of this would be cheap.

Therefore, it seems profoundly irresponsible to me to go forward on this project without knowing exactly how, we as members of the community, intend to generate the capital necessary for completion. If the community can’t figure out how to pay for this project, then the city will turn around, condemn the building and raze it, partially or thoroughly, and allow a developer to do with the site as he or she sees fit. And if this happens, everybody loses, city and citizens together. The citizens will lose a vital cultural space located in the centre of the community, while the city loses the potential indirect economic benefits of having just such an institution in our backyard.

NDG lacks a proper performing arts venue, and Sherbrooke Street West lacks a cultural institution to anchor the street and serve as an intellectual and cultural focal point of the community. The Empress could be all these things, in addition to an economic generator if there was an organization in place whose goal it was to generate a ‘self-sustaining’ level of revenue through regularly scheduled performances and other entertainment activities. I can imagine a seat of community activity, all day, every day, right across from the jewel that is Girouard Park. Moving forward it is imperative that revenue-creation be taken into consideration as an element of the renovation/revitalization of the site.

But what about the community? We need something more than just a performance venue, we need a community cultural centre, which is another vital community component lacking from NDG. An architect was brought in to make a recommendation as to what to do with the space back in 2005. Among other things, he indicated there was enough space inside to have one or two stages, a gallery space, between two and three storefronts, offices, rehearsal and construction facilities in addition to a dance studio and rooftop terrace. It was ambitious to say the least, but it’s still feasible. And the bigger the redevelopment, the greater the possibilities for potential revenue creation. To handicap the project prematurely by not seeking a thorough renovation and maximization of the space inside would be regrettable, as this may only prolong the demise rather than stimulate new growth.

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One final point: one of the greatest concerns of the people I spoke with, various local residents and members of the ECC, was that the city would repossess the building and sell it to an unscrupulous real estate developer who in turn would gut the interior and resort to banal façadism, providing a limited number of excessively expensive ‘theatre-themed’ condo units within. I thought the nightmare to be a bit over the top, but I suppose that danger isn’t completely irrational. Still, the Borough hasn’t yet made a call, and they in all sincerity think another public pitch for tenders may present new investors and opportunities.

Now consider this: there’s a parking lot adjacent to the Empress, roughly half the area of the theatre. The other half of the adjacent lot features a nondescript two floor building with restaurants and small shops.

A condominium project on this theatre-adjacent site, possibly a condo tower with a multi-floor underground parking lot and a commercial rental-property base, may provide the initial investment capital for the Empress’ rehabilitation. I can’t imagine a more solid investment than one in Montreal’s as-yet un-satiated condo market, especially if this particular condo project would a) be in a neighbourhood where condos are still a rarity, b) have a commanding view of Girouard Park, the Oratory, the Mountain, the City (and just about everything else!) and c) be adjacent to a newly revitalized performing arts venue and community cultural centre. The Seville sold out in a half hour, do you think we could beat that record? I can imagine the owner of the adjacent building and parking lot could be motivated to sell or invest, especially if the resulting commercial base offered his tenants more modern and efficient facilities. At least three revenue streams could be generated from such a development, and this in turn could provide the capital necessary to execute the renovations of the Empress and provide start-up funds for the performing arts venue and community cultural centre. These costs could be incorporated into the cost and value of the condominium units. I can imagine once the theatre is financially self-sustaining, they may be able to pay off this investment back to the condo developers.

In any event I digress, that’s just one unorthodox proposal. It should be an interesting few months and I’ll definitely be following this story.