Empress Theatre Montreal

The Empress in the 1940s

Montreal’s Empress Theatre is a part of our heritage that needs saving

After nearly 30 years of municipal neglect and entrepreneurial false starts, is this onetime NDG hotspot destined for demolition?

It’s one of those vexing, persistent, only-in-Montreal problems — like how to greet American tourists without offending separatists, or how to remove snow without contracting organized crime. We claim we’re historic. We claim we support the arts. We claim to enjoy a night on the town. Yet somehow, for nearly 30 years, a one-of-a-kind theatre has occupied primo real-estate in a pseudo-trendy part of town with inadequate nightlife, and no one has been able to revive the Empress Theatre.

A quick search reveals a seemingly endless stream of stories dating back to the late-1990s about how NDG’s Empress Theatre will “finally” find a new vocation. It will be revived, restored, rehabilitated, renovated and/or repurposed, bringing “life back to NDG.” Several articles of the type were written this year alone.

And year after year, nothing happens. Non-profits, charities, cultural organizations, local government — seemingly everyone has taken a turn trying to make something of this building. Sometimes there was more than one group working on a solution, but not working together. Studies were commissioned, architects came up with renderings and illustrations, surveys were completed, the public was consulted.

And zilch. The Empress has stood empty for about a third of its life. The building has been described as derelict and in danger of falling down for over 20 years (spoiler alert: it hasn’t happened yet).

In fact, questions about the structural integrity of the building date back to 1999 when the city first purchased the building with a plan to renovate it. The nature of this concern was based more on politics than engineering, however, with a cabal of West End city councillors (including Michael Applebaum, Jeremy Searle and Marvin Rotrand) leading the laissez-faire charge that the city shouldn’t be involved in the theatre business.

empress theatre montreal
The Cinema V in the 1980s

Applebaum, for what it’s worth, had a change of heart about a decade later when he was CDN-NDG’s borough mayor. In 2008, he was pointing to the city’s $1.6-million contribution to a $6.5-million project that involved the city, the borough, Black Theatre Workshop, McGill University, the provincial government’s culture ministry and Peter McAuslan, among others. This project — the Empress Cultural Centre — received money to repair the building’s roof, which apparently still leaks. Somehow millions of public dollars have been spent over the years to maintain an abandoned building in a state of disrepair.

When just about the entire planet was glued to their screens waiting for results to come in from this year’s American presidential election, the borough of Côte-des-Neiges / Notre-Dame-de-Grâce held the first in yet another round of public consultations on the future of the old Empress Theatre.

Though participants had plenty of ideas about what could be done on the site of the antique movie palace, what wasn’t clear was whether any effort was being made to preserve the nearly hundred-year-old theatre. Answers to the question ranged from “we’ll see” to “we’re not sure” to “let’s see what people say,” but for the most part elected officials seemed resigned to the idea that the building is a total loss and not worth preserving.

Qualified though these individuals may be in running the borough’s affairs, none are preservationists, historians, architects or engineers.

City councillor Peter McQueen, who was needlessly evasive when questioned about the Empress and its future, indicated that the building had lost whatever was worth preserving when it was converted into the twin-screen Cinema V in the 1970s.

Héritage Montréal, by contrast, indicated that there were not only preservable fragments of the building’s historic interior, but a façade worth preserving as well. Moreover, preservation is not limited to form, but extended to function as well, and in this respect the Empress is still what it’s always been: a neighbourhood theatre. Héritage Montréal’s experts were invited to tour the Empress but also encouraged to confirm the borough’s position that the building wasn’t salvageable. This they declined, indicating they’d need to conduct a thorough examination before rendering judgment. They weren’t invited back.

Empress Theatre Montreal NDG
Inside the Empress Theatre

City councillor Christian Arseneault said that borough mayor Sue Montgomery “tried to fast-track a demolition in order to show that something (original emphasis) was being done, but was unsuccessful” and that “the inaction of administrations past has effectively ruled out preservation funding.” Arseneault continued stating “…we conducted a structural audit of the building last year and, frankly, it’s a miracle the place hasn’t collapsed yet. It’s not just the façade that is falling apart; the building itself is unsound.”

This assessment wasn’t entirely confirmed by borough planning consultant Nicolas Lavoie, who contradicted Arseneault’s assertion that the borough had sought to demolish the building but agreed that the building was in poor shape. Whatever shape it’s in, the borough gave the SHDM (the city’s public housing authority) a quarter of a million dollars to conduct an engineering and architectural study. This is apparently a different study from the “structural audit” Arseneault referred to, which isn’t a public document. According to Lavoie, the studies aren’t public because it’s a “delicate situation” and the borough wants to avoid any “misinterpretations.”

Indeed, it is peculiar that a building of such evident importance to the people of NDG would be left in such an apparently precarious physical state while the report detailing the precariousness would be withheld from the public eye. Keep in mind, just four years ago the Empress Theatre Foundation was moving ahead on a project to rehabilitate the building as a multi-screen cinema. Did the old girl suddenly decide to fall apart after all these years?

Curiously, in the entire time the city or the borough has owned the building outright, no one has ever applied to either the federal government’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board or the Quebec heritage ministry for an official recognition of the building’s historic status. Nicolas Lavoie reiterated several times that everyone at the borough considers the Empress a heritage site, but admitted no one had ever tried to make it official.

Such a designation would permit the borough to apply for federal and/or provincial government funding to execute necessary repairs, and in some cases even more substantial renovations. It might also limit what could be done with the building — i.e. historic site status would mean it would have to function as a theatre, one the reasons the status likely wasn’t pursued 20 years ago. It wouldn’t be a tough argument to make: the Empress is nearly 100 years old and remains, dilapidated though it may be, the unique extant example of Egyptian Revival theatre architecture in Canada.

And just for good measure, yes, Oscar Peterson apparently practised on the Empress’s organ during off hours when he was a teenager.

The biggest problem facing the Empress — and the primary reason why the borough seems insistent on wiping the slate clean and starting fresh — is also what hampered restoration and revival efforts of the past.

Everyone wants this building to be something it isn’t, and for it to make up for an ever-increasing deficit of public community space.

Cinema V Empress Theatre Montreal NDG
Exterior, 2015

So rather than restoring a theatre to function as a theatre, public consultations consistently reveal that the public wants multi-functional rooms, dance studios, performance space, a cabaret, a cafe and a full-service rooftop restaurant. They’d also like the project to be finished yesterday, don’t want to pay higher taxes, need extra parking on weekends and would prefer the whole renovation process be carbon neutral.

It goes without saying, the greenest building is almost always the one that’s already built.

Given the myriad non-theatre related functions the public would like to see at the site, the form of the building is now considered “too constraining”, according to Lavoie, who also reiterated the prominent belief, drawn from public consultations, that streaming services and the internet have made cinemas obsolete.

There’s a great irony here, because people were saying the exact same thing about the VCR in the mid-late 1980s, right around the time Famous Players bought the Empress and converted it from a repertory theatre back into a first-run cinema.

It’s the difference between drinking at home and drinking at a bar.

Sure, the former is usually cheaper and likely safer, too. It’s also boring. There are plenty of people who have jumped the gun already and pronounced bars, cafés and restaurants ‘obsolete’ because of the pandemic. Trust me when I say once it becomes safe to go out again, Montrealers will be going out with a vengeance. A theatre — be it a space for cinema, comedy, music, slam poetry or amateur beatboxing competitions — will likely attract a crowd, and those people will probably want food and drink both before and after a show.

When people talk of reviving the Empress, it’s not just that they wish to see the lights on in a charming old building, it’s that they want the opportunity to go have a night out on the town in their own backyard.

Perhaps public consultations in NDG reveal a bit too much about the people who live there: the Deeg got old. A lifelong resident who split recently for the greener pastures of the Mile End-adjacent Outremont lamented the loss of his old neighbourhood: “NDG ages you.” It’s not that the Empress is a loss, but maybe that NDG is too old and too stuffy to have a good time. Being “Westmount-adjacent” was bound to bite the borough in the ass eventually, and here it is. If the Empress were anywhere else, it would be a performance venue, and doubtless a successful one as well.

Cinema V Montreal NDG
Inside the Cinema V, 2000s

The Montgomery administration’s aim to build social housing on part or all of the site — in addition to community space, commercial space and whatever other proposals come forward in public consultation — is admirable but not what the borough needs. NDG is almost exclusively residential, and extant housing could be purchased by the city and subsidized for those who need it most, integrating social housing into the urban fabric rather than isolating it on an island in the most prominent location in the whole neighbourhood. As it stands, the mayor is setting the stage for a potentially ugly confrontation between the borough and local Not-In-My-Backyard types. Besides, there are other locations — former churches, empty lots etc — that could just as easily be used for public housing. Political expediency — in this case the fact that Mayor Montgomery is on the outs with the rest of Projet Montréal — seems to be dictating the fate of the Empress. It would seem what local small businesses need may have taken a backseat to showing everyone who’s in charge.

Subsidized housing and ill-defined commitments to “community space” isn’t going to get people out onto Sherbrooke Street West, and it’s indirect small-business stimulus that’s going to need to be prioritized in the post-pandemic recovery. Montreal neighbourhoods are distinguished by their cachet, but for NDG like too much of the west end, there’s no “there” there.

It would be a sad fate — though entirely characteristic of Montreal — for the Empress to be razed in the name of political expediency, only to be left an empty lot for several more years before eventually being turned into condos, supported by a new borough mayor hell-bent on “finally” rejuvenating NDG. ■

This feature was originally published in the December 2020 issue of Cult MTL.

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.