It’s almost impossible to imagine these days, but once upon a time, Montreal was a city of many great and grand theatres. Ste-Catherine Street in particular was nearly wall to wall with theatres along some stretches throughout much of the early and mid-20th century. As you have probably already guessed, the presence of so many performance venues along the city’s most important commercial artery is the how and the why Montreal earned a reputation as a city of vibrant nightlife. The theatres brought people, and this in turn brought restaurants, bars, cafés and nightclubs. When you hear boomers lamenting “Ste-Catherine Street isn’t what it used to be,” this is what they mean.
Montreal used to have a lot of these theatres, and a number of the grandest examples were located on Ste-Catherine. Many have been torn down, including the latest casualty of our city’s undeclared war on its theatres. The Loews, which was built in 1917 and maintained the record as the largest theatre in Canada well into the 1960s, was destroyed in February to make room for yet another uninspired and nondescript condominium tower.
It was an ignoble fate for the Loews, a theatre that had hosted film festivals and whose capacity made it an ideal location for film premieres. Even though it had stopped functioning as a theatre about 20 years ago when it was converted into a gym, at the very least many of the distinctive architectural elements were retained. Now, in a best case and completely non-binding scenario, the people who destroyed the theatre want us to believe they’ll reincorporate some of those decorative elements into a back alley.
Which is exactly the best place to appreciate century-old theatre architecture: contextless and in a place you fear being mugged. I’ve always appreciated the views of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from that alleyway behind Boustan.
That matter notwithstanding, here we have yet another masterpiece of local architecture ground down to dust. It will never be recovered, and it’s not like we have that many examples left we can play fast and loose with what we hold on to.
For a city that ostensibly cares about its built environment, its architectural heritage and its unique character, the city of Montreal’s approach to historic preservation is inconsistent at best, though more often than not, incoherent and incompetent. And nothing illustrates this fact as well as the city’s approach to its once impressive collection of palatial theatres.
Montreal was in a very unique position vis-a-vis the dawn on the modern cinema. Montreal was Canada’s most populous city at the end of the 19th century and its industrial, commercial and cultural hub. Like many other North American cities throughout the mid-19th century, popular entertainments and leisure activities became widespread. Montreal already had a well-established vaudeville, opera and theatre scene which in turn had led to the creation of purpose-built theatres throughout the city. One of our oldest, and remarkably still functioning, is Metropolis, which first opened in 1884 (it goes by a different name now, and because the overt commercialization of all aspects of our society both blows and sucks at the same time, I won’t use its corporate-branded name. It can be found at 59 Ste-Catherine E. — look it up).
Several more of these pre-cinema multi-functional theatres were built all over the city, but a major development took place in 1896, when Montreal became the very first city in North America to screen a film for a paying audience. This happened in the Robillard Building, which stood on the Main in Chinatown, just north of Viger, until it was destroyed by a fire in 2016.
In other words, Montreal was ground zero for the dawn of the modern cinema, and there was both a well-established local entertainment scene and plenty of capital and audience potential. These factors, combined with the technological limitations of early cinema, led to the creation of numerous theatres all over the city, many of which designed in a grand and opulent manner. Those built in the early decades of the last century often looked a lot like the theatres where plays and other kinds of live performance occurred. This was a practical consideration, given cinema was still largely short and silent, and may not have been the main focus of the evening’s entertainment. They had stages, sometimes orchestra pits and often organs to accompany the films. Nearly all had lavish interior decorations, often to give the impression of an exotic locale — a medieval castle courtyard, Ancient Egypt, or an Italian villa—meant to entertain and inflame the imaginations of the audience prior to the main attraction. They were called ‘movie palaces’ for good reason, they were often palatial in every sense of the term.
By my count Montreal once had about fifty of these theatres, the majority of which were put up in the 1910s and 1920s. While about half of these theatres were located in the city centre, the rest were spread throughout the city, anchoring the commercial thoroughfares of Montreal’s myriad neighbourhoods. This excellent Héritage Montréal article describes these community-focused theatres as the Palace de Quartier. One of the better known examples of this latter type is the Corona in Little Burgundy. I’d argue the Corona’s revival as a major concert venue is one of the core reasons why and how that neighbourhood has become the trendy place that it is. In Montreal, like in many other cities, development always seems to follow the artists and the places they live, work and play in. Just as often, this trend pushes the very people who transform neighbourhoods right out of them, and as we’ve seen of late, unchecked gentrification often leads to the forced closure of venues for entirely non-economic reasons.
Most of Montreal’s old movie palaces are long-gone, either demolished outright like the Loews, or left to rot like the Seville. In some instances the shell and facade of the buildings were preserved while the interiors were gutted and disfigured beyond recognition, a sad and ironic fate given that it was almost always the interiors of these buildings that were the real show stoppers. In most cases though, theatres were simply boarded up and left abandoned for decades before finally being destroyed because they were considered beyond saving. A number of Montreal’s most beautiful ancient movie palaces suffered this fate, what architects and preservationists call ‘destruction via neglect’. Worse still, the decision to do nothing is almost always being made either by property owners or local politicians who haven’t had an original thought in years and wouldn’t know how to have fun if their lives depended on it. NDG’s Empress Theatre is a prime example of this: even though practically the entire borough wants this theatre preserved and put to use as an entertainment venue, neither the private nor public sector seems to be capable of doing anything other than letting it fall further into ruin.
But don’t worry, they’ll put up one hell of a condo tower after the theatre falls down. They’ll probably even call it ‘L’Empress sur le parc’ or some such shit like that.
That matter aside, one of the biggest problems we face in this city is the misapplication of the term ‘heritage building’ by journalists and politicians alike. I fear I may also have once or twice been guilty of this, but it’s important to remember that just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s protected. In fact, even if a building in Montreal has a heritage designation from either the province or federal government, it still might not be protected from demolition. As best as I can tell, a heritage designation form the city is effectively worthless. The use of the terms heritage, historic and landmark often imply a building that is perhaps recognized or protected to one degree or another, but more often than not really only ever mean old. And for a city so ostensibly concerned with making history, architectural heritage and culture key components of its international brand, Montreal really does sweet fuck all to protect and preserve many of its most unique antique buildings, especially those that are already purpose-built to accommodate all manner of live performance.
Put it another way, the new condo tower that will replace the Loews isn’t going to bring people ‘back to the city’. If current trends are any indication, a lot of those apartments will be full-time rental properties, or the second homes of wealthy people who don’t really live here and couldn’t give two shits about whether living here is enjoyable or not. By contrast, a competently managed theatre can generate trickle-down economic stimulus that supports an entire ecosystem of businesses: cafés, restaurants, bars and nightclubs—most people want something to do both before and after the show.
The Loews is a lost cause and it’s an unforgivable loss—it’s highly unlikely theatres like it will ever be built again. But there are still a few of these old theatres here and there around the city, some in better shape than others, some better used than others. The city should do all it can to protect these buildings and promote their use, even if this ultimately means setting up a municipal theatre department whose sole job is to ensure they’re restored, renovated and regularly booked. Why not? Culture is our business, and business has historically been good, even if it is dependent on government subsidies and grants. Support the theatre, private enterprise can take care of the rest.
On a closing thought, about a month or so ago I reached out to Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace borough mayor Gracia Kasoki Katahwa and offered her my services (pro bono) as a public historian, to nominate the Empress Theatre to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the federal body responsible for designating places of historic value. I cannot do this by myself as an individual citizen, as I require the consent of the property owner, which in this case is either the city or the borough. A government agent I was in contact with told me that approval from the city could take the form of a motion passed at a borough council meeting, or a note from the borough mayor. Given that I have some experience in this field and have already worked on two different projects to try to save the Empress, I figured I’d be the right person to do this job. The Empress is historically and architecturally significant in a few different ways, namely that it remains one of the very few still standing ‘atmospheric’ theatres in Canada designed by Emmanuel Briffa, and is the only remaining such theatre designed in an Egyptian style. Better still, there are still original design elements within the building which could be restored. On the historical side of things, Oscar Peterson practiced on the Empress’ organ, often showing up to practice late at night, after the theatre closed.
It wouldn’t take much to nominate the building, and the building’s nomination would likely be approved. Doing so would then allow the city to apply for a number of federal grants intended to better protect and preserve historic structures. This could potentially help pay for all the repairs and restoration work necessary to make this space useable again. Without the designation, none of those grants are available. As I said, I have offered my services to the borough mayor and have nothing to gain from doing so. She acknowledge my initial email and said she’d speak with the borough manager and get back to me. I am still waiting to hear back from her. ■
This article was originally published on March 5 and updated on March 21, 2022.
Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.