Montréal’s Lost Attractions – Keep this in mind for the 375th!

Our city has been built on birthday presents.

For Canada’s Centennial Anniversary we got a Métro system and 50 million tourists in six months, not to mention world attention and twenty+ years of urban renewal and densification projects. For the 350th anniversary of the founding of Ville-Marie, we got skyscrapers, new parks and a thoroughly rejuvenated harbour front. In less than six years we will celebrate not only the 375th anniversary of our city’s founding, but the nation’s sesquicentennial and the fiftieth anniversary of Expo as well. What a party! As you may well imagine, the City is looking for suggestions with regards to themes and ideas for the celebration. I can’t think of anything specific and all-encompassing yet (no kidding!), so I thought it might be an idea to explore some of our lost attractions to see if we can’t think of something worth saving now to be operational by 2017.

I’ve listed some examples in no particular order, ask yourself whether we’re better off without them.

1. The Montréal Aquarium – so we once had an aquarium located on Ile-Ste-Helene, a gift from Alcan to the City of Montréal for Expo 67. Today, part of the pavilion remains as part of La Ronde, though every time I pass by it seems painfully under-used. Opened in 1966, the aquarium featured local species of marine life in addition to penguins and a group of dolphins. The dolphins were trained and were featured in many live presentations, and could even access Lac des Dauphins (now best known as the launch site for the fireworks each Summer) through a specially built tunnel. The aquarium shut down for good in 1991 after a decade’s worth of bad publicity as a result of a labour strike which resulted in the deaths of some of the dolphins. When it was opened to the public in the mid-1960s it was a state of the art facility comparable to the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

2. The Montreal Funicular – if you ever take the 80 going up Parc Avenue in the Winter take a look at the mountain between Pine and Rachel, you may notice an odd dark line working it’s way up the side. At first glance it may appear to be little more than a rockslide, but make no mistake, this is actually all that remains of the Mount Royal funicular railway, which over a hundred years ago provided the path of least resistance to the top of Mount Royal. A the top was a rickety wooden platform offering a tree-top perspective on the bustling metropolis below. It didn’t last too long, going up against Frederick Law Olmstead’s protestations in 1884 and deemed structurally unsound by 1920 when it was dismantled. While I’m not in favour of cutting up the side of the Mountain to build a new funicular, I wouldn’t mind seeing a return of the No. 11 tram line to speed people to the top of Mount Royal.

3. Le Pélican – this is a full-size replica of Le Pélican, a ship commanded by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, born in Ville-Marie in 1661. The Pélican was abandoned after being holed below the waterline during the Battle of the Hudson’s Bay during the War of the Grand Alliance in 1697 after successfully repelling an attack by a superior English naval force. In 1987 construction commenced in La Malbaie on a full-size replica of this famous ship, which was brought to Montréal and moored here as part of our 350th anniversary. I remember visiting the ship with my brother and parents back in `92 or `93, though it wouldn’t be long before the project failed and the replica was sold to some American theme park. It has since been severely damaged and isn’t being used. One of the big problems for the project was their inability to secure authentic artifacts (or even replicas) for the interior of the ship, and thus had little to offer guests in the ways of demonstrating what life would have been like on a 17th century French warship. I wonder if such a project could succeed today. Isn’t it odd that a seafaring city such as ours doesn’t have a maritime museum?

4. Eaton’s Ninth Floor – when I was a young lad my mother worked in the city, and I thought this to be terribly grand, worth every minute of the commute. Up high amongst the skyscrapers, in with the hustle and bustle, in beautifully designed testaments to human ingenuity and innovation. She told me of eating here, that is was very popular amongst the white-collar crowd. A restaurant designed to look like an ocean liner (which of course translated in my young mind as being fisherman-themed and offering a uniquely all-seafood menu), it would be much later before I saw this gem of Art Deco interior design. The space still exists, though it has been mothballed pending renovation work that never seems to get off the ground. It’s apparently beginning to show signs of decomposition, and has been on Héritage Montréal’s watchlist for some time. It makes me wonder why the city doesn’t step-in and try to successfully operate a full-service, for-profit restaurant. People ate there as long as it was open (more than sixty years) simply because the food was delicious and reasonably-priced, and the setting was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Today office workers munch on Tim Horton’s while looking at their computer screens. C’mon…

5. Corrid’art – a simple project that transformed Sherbrooke Street from Pie-IX to Atwater into a nine-kilometer long outdoor art gallery, featuring the works of some sixty major local artists. It was supposed to be the principle cultural component of the XXI Olympiad, but the entire project was scrapped (literally) at the last minute by Mayor Drapeau, who considered it obscene and ugly. It was up for about two days, and was designed to feature some 700 performances spread out along the route. Moreover, this project had an urban-planning component, wherein it’s design allowed a aesthetic link to be made between the Olympic Park and the Downtown for tourists unfamiliar with the city. Why isn’t this done every year during the temperate months for precisely the same reasons (to showcase local artists and ‘connect’ the Olympic Park with the city?)

6. The Last Vaudeville/Atmospheric Theatres (including The Rialto, The Empress, the Loew’s Palace and Imperial Theatres). Of these four once great theatres only the Rialto and Imperial remain somewhat operational, though neither offer the regularly scheduled programming of multi-purpose theatre spaces you may find elsewhere. The Empress is a perpetual ‘what-if’ and the Palace is now a high-end gym. For a city constantly kvetching about lack of venue space, I wonder again why our city refrains from purchasing these local landmarks to be used as for-profit venues with regularly scheduled programming largely featuring local talent? Imagine if the City took it a step further, using revenue collected from ticket and concession sales, rentals and affiliated businesses to finance the renovations of other theatres? The point is that declaring some building a heritage site is a largely worthless gesture unless you plan on using it for its intended purpose. Either way, if other city’s can save their antique theatres, so can we.

We might not be able to fully articulate why we need these kinds of attractions except to say that it’s ultimately good for business and good for tourism. For me it’s an issue of following through on investments and never abandoning a project that involved or involves tax-payer money.

We’re a unique city in that we can depend on a steady stream of tourists each year, but from time to time we need to ‘spend money to make money later’ – key sectors of the economy need to be stimulated occasionally by city-led redevelopment projects, and these projects have in the past led to some of our greatest achievements. Now might not be the best time to plan an Expo or another Olympics, but you should know we’re better equipped to handle events of that size today than we were when we had them initially. We have better infrastructure, two international airports, an excellent mass-transit system and more convention and hotel space than we know what to do with – this is ours to use to turn a profit for our city, for ourselves. And while we still need to plan large international events to stimulate development on a large scale, there are still plenty of things we can do on a much smaller scale to increase tourism and tourist revenue. And what better place to look for inspiration than our own history books?

4 thoughts on “Montréal’s Lost Attractions – Keep this in mind for the 375th!”

  1. You raise perfectly valid points, but I can’t imagine there’s no way to strike a balance.

    With regards to PDA, MMFA, MACM etc, I can imagine the city, if it tried harder, could find investors interested in having the restaurant to serve these prestigious institutions.

    It seems like city-run restaurants are handed out like gifts, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be this way. I think the city has to be somewhat involved in the restaurant game, if for no other reason than to help stimulate the culinary arts, but that said they’d need to insist on hiring (and paying for) the best in the business.

  2. All good ideas, except one aspect. Public entities should not try to run restaurants for profit. This produces really poor results (I know from having worked in the industry). A restaurant is one kind of enterprise that really requires the incentive forces of capitalism. Injecting money into a restaurant creates a sort of artificial prestige and reputation for the establishment, which translates into the loss of actual innovation by the chef. Place des Arts, MACM, MBAM, etc. all run very mediocre restaurants that are not profitable. The respective not-for-profit entities all regularly inject money into them to keep them open. Place des Arts simply wants a restaurant in the complex, whether or not its profitable. If the chef creates a poor menu or the wait staff is mismanaged, they’ll just inject money into the business. The restaurant clientèle doesn’t patronize an establishment because its in a historical building or a respected cultural institution. They go for good food and service, which is hard to provide without real free market style influences. I would love to see the Eaton’s restaurant re-opened, but it would have to be a private investor. Very difficult because high end restaurants have low profit margins in Montreal (a city with a limited number of high wealth residents), and there aren’t very many restaurants without street storefront that operate successfully these days.

  3. Hi!

    Thank you very much. I’ve been scratching my head about this very point for a while. Unfortunately I’m not involved politically in any way, though maybe one day if I get enough support.

    I don’t think there’s any law that would prohibit a city from seeking new sources of revenue, and indeed, our city is also a corporation – it needs to grow and to continue making money, though obviously not to detriment of the citizens.

    There’s certainly rules designed to favour competition, but in some cases competition is non-existent. In other cases the business community is simply not interested in taking a risk which demands large-sums of up-front capital. Effectively, I think the city has a responsibility to plug the holes, to develop business the business community can’t, for one reason or another. Theatres fall into this category because they typically require renovations and upgrades, not to mention they serve an artistic community. There are grants and other gov’t business to be transacted when dealing with heritage properties, so I would imagine it would be advantageous for the city to implicate itself.

    Obviously, the revenue would be used to support the operations of the institution, organization or attraction in question, with a portion of profits given back to the community, another invested for long-term financial support, and yet another returned to the city itself.

  4. I love your ideas, where the city should operate facilities on a for-profit basis to keep them alive, make some money, and improve the city, but it looks like the problems may run deeper than that, (are you in politics – can you fix them?).

    For example, it might be illegal for the city to run a for-profit business, that’s why the Bixi company has to sell off its export business, because some provincial law says cities can’t engage in for-profit activity…

    However, I hope that a way can be found around that law, or perhaps someone in the private sector can see that there’s money to be made doing something similar. I used to live near the Empress, and it’s a shame that we have things like that sitting around our city rotting.

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