Theatre Saint James

Old Montreal by Jacob Varghese – 2010. The new Theatre Saint James will occupy the building at far right.

A little bit of good news for those of us keen on the promotion of local culture and the preservation of heritage architecture – the old Canadian Bank of Commerce building has been purchased by the current owner of the Rialto Theatre, Ezio Carosielli, to be converted into a performance venue.

The bank branch was closed in 2010 and shortly thereafter purchased by the Bitton clan, well-known for their high-end jeans. Not knowing what in god’s name to do with it, they sold it to a man I’ve yet had the pleasure to meet, whose business it is (apparently) to give old theatres a new lease on life – with gains in profit and culture combined.

I wish I had the money right now to do the same. A long time ago I met with the former owner of the Rialto to see what I could find out about the place. It was clear from our conversation he had zero interest in using it was a performance space. Thankfully, today it does just that.

The story of Montreal’s once massive collection of theatres is a rather sad one, given how few have been preserved and maintained, not to mention the loss of some truly irreplaceable works of decorative art. The famed Maltese-Canadian theatre designer Emmanuel Briffa designed five ‘atmospheric vaudeville’ theatres (multi-use performance spaces, in essence, designed for theatre, cinema, music etc.) in Montréal, of which the Rialto is the only remaining functioning as originally intended. The Empress was recently acquired to be converted into a repertory theatre by the group behind Cinema Beaubien and will feature four screens and a restaurant, while the York and Seville were demolished (by Concordia and neglect respectively) and the Snowdon Theatre, once an Art Deco landmark, was infamously re-developed into a failed office building. Today it’s a community centre with no hope of ever returning to use as a performance space.

Now in this case a theatre isn’t being saved but a nonetheless striking banking hall will be cleverly repurposed for use as a venue, right in the heart of old Saint James Street. I find it interesting that the Old Port will now have two theatres located in former financial temples, but I digress. It’s a key part of town that could use additional performance space and will doubtless help solidify the Old Port’s cultural presence within the cityscape. While no plans have been released for how Mr. Carosielli intends to convert the space, what the capacity will be etc., he remains nonetheless convinced renovations will be minimal and they’ll be open for business within a few months.

Saint James has been a bit out of sorts lately. I’m fairly certain there was a strong push to re-dedicate the street as a sort of Southern Sherbrooke – replete with tony hotels and high-end boutiques. While there’s definitely plenty of that, there are also a few stalled developments and shot up haberdasheries. Not to mention that godawful nightclub.

This move may be a turning point for the street’s identity as it transitions from the former financial centre of the entire country into the old city’s showcase avenue, and I hope more residents (and services for them) flock to the area – it’s a real gem.

Final note, I’m also quite hopeful that this new competition lights the fire under some of the creative types over at the Centaur.

I still haven’t forgiven them for ‘Sex in La Cité‘.

Before Expansion, Improvement?

Matthew McLauchlin’s proposal for an expanded Montreal Métro and commuter rail network

A few thoughts on the Métro that came about from conversations over the last little while.

You already know where I stand – I want Métro access city-wide on a 24-hour schedule, something which may not be possible with our current system based on how it’s designed. Kate McDonnell brought up the excellent point that we lack ‘bypass tunnels’ and use out-dated cleaning equipment during the no-service period from 1:30-5:30 (ballpark) in the morning. This is why we don’t run the Métro all day and all night.

The Métro, as practical and as great as it is, has a few other problems worth mentioning. Some stations are aesthetically dated, others just gross. Our Métro lacks both heating and air-conditioning, public washrooms, decent services, elevators etc. Some access tunnels have fallen into disuse and disrepair (perfect example, the Métro tunnel access point at Sherbrooke between Berri and Saint-Hubert on the far side of the hotel – check it out but go with a friend, creeper city) while others are so overused they invariably look like shit (Peel Métro’s Stanley Street entryway, as another example). Then there are the foul smells, the dripping calcium stalactites at Guy-Concordia, the dim lighting, the underused public spaces, busted up benches and TV screens and the graffiti.

So before we start expanding, maybe we improve on what we have.

Although I desperately want the city, STM and AMT to begin massive expansion of sub and railway service in our city, before extending Métro lines we really ought to bring what we have up to code, a full renovation.

I would also advocate closing the system down – for a defined period – if for no other reason that we could claim a very real fresh-start for our Métro system. There are practical and technical reasons as well. If we’re to ever have 24-hour service we need to either construct by-pass tunnels or develop new tunnel cleaning methods. While the latter may be cheaper the former permits inter-lining, which in turn could revolutionize public transit in our city by permitting all trains to operate on all lines throughout the soon to be expanding system. In addition, this would further permit the use of express routes, all of which may be worth considering given current and future usage growth rates. The downside is such massive re-working of the rail network would require either the entire network being shut down or large portions at a time. No matter which way you cut it, during a renovation period – even if it was done as quickly as possible – would still require expanded operations on other modes, such as commuter trains and buses, perhaps even tram systems installed before a Métro Reno.

Doing all the work in the tunnels would allow us to inspect and retrofit as need be, not to mention facilitate planning the eventual expansion. We could also finally decide how to improve air-circulation, ventilation and internal climate control. While there’s no issue keeping the stations warm in winter, its getting them cool in summer which is perennially problematic. We might also want to see if we can correct periodic flooding in the tunnels while we’re at it.

I’ve already mentioned I think some stations could do with an aesthetic makeover, while others just need upgraded facilities, all of it should be ‘vandal-proofed’ as best we can. New public washrooms should be built, in addition to elevators for the mobility-impaired amongst us.

There are myriad other improvements I haven’t mentioned that affect individual stations and entire lines, but the point is we might be wise to raise our Métro’s standards before we decide to expand outward. I fear expansion without improvement will only wind up expanding on something which may be operationally obsolete. Much of our system was designed and built for the Montréal of the 1960s (including some parts completed in the 1980s!) but the operational tempo and demands placed on the system by its users have changed dramatically in fifty years.

I wonder just how quickly we could execute a system-wide renovation and upgrade of the Métro, bringing everything up to the same ‘starting point’ before we launch into system expansion? If we set a three-shift schedule, knowing we have to return the system to full operations as quickly as possible, would we discuss this renovation in terms of years, or months, weeks even?

I tell you – if there’s one gift I’d like to see the city give itself for the sesquicentennial of Confederation and the 50th anniversary of Expo, it would be a modern, beautiful Métro network.