Published in the Montreal Gazette on Saturday, August 7, 2010.
When, in the spring of 1906, J. H Blumenthal & Sons acquired the northeast block of Bleury and St. Catherine Streets, Montreal was a considerably smaller town than it is today. A few years later, upon that fashionable uptown site, the family of retail clothing merchants chose to construct their flagship mega-store based on plans submitted by architects David Ogilvy and Charles Alexander Mitchell. Having done so, they could never have imagined the changes that would occur in the course of a hundred years to the immediate neighbourhood, and to that same spectacular edifice.
Yet, during the course of ten days earlier this summer, hundreds of thousands of Montrealers circulated in and around the recently – refurbished Blumenthal Building as this city marked the 31st edition of the always popular International Jazz Festival.
The now historic seven-storey structure, with its remarkable terra – cotta façade (complete with the letter ‘B’ enclosed within a Star of David on the elaborate cornice), first opened to the public on May 6, 1911. On that very day, everything about the building suggested solidity and strength. It cost the family $500,000 in 1910 money, the final product considered at the time to be the finest edifice of its kind in Canada, and one of the largest in the world. As such, it is also an important representation of commercial architecture of the early twentieth century.
The Blumenthal business occupied the first three floors of the building. As one passed through the door from bustling St. Catherine Street the great spaces, the high ceiling, the massive pillars, the mahogany fixtures, the glittering mirrors, the quiet air of dignity and the cleanliness were apparent to all.
Indeed, there was much to be admired, from the great terra-cotta capitals that crowned the pillars to the polished hardwood floors. Clerks were busy nimbly arranging goods for the great opening which took place that spring morning nearly a hundred years ago, and the hum and bustle that always precedes such an event was clearly evident. The mahogany cabinets, absolutely dust-proof, which lined the walls, were filled with men’s clothes. In the basement were the boys’ suits so popular in Edwardian times.
With the passage of time, however, Blumenthal’s men’s clothing business ceased operations and the edifice was taken over by various commercial activities, including Steinberg’s and the Toronto Dominion Bank. In 1990, the almost derelict building was declared a heritage site by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Nearly two decades later, the Montreal Jazz Festival took possession of the tattered structure along with a $10,000,000 contribution from the provincial government towards its restoration. The extensive work finally began in November of 2008.
Today, nearly a century after its official opening, the Maison du Festival Rio Tinto Alcan building is a wonder to behold. The thoroughly revamped structure contains a large jazz club dubbed ‘L’Astral’. This beautiful amphitheatre holds 350 people, all seated no further than 15 meters from the performer. This very intimate setting can truly serve as a springboard for many talented Montreal artists.
Furthermore, the Maison du Festival (which opened just in time for the 2009 Jazz Festival) contains an exhibition gallery, and a mediatheque archive of the thirty year old festival, holding over 30,000 CD’s. Both venues are open to the public at no charge.
And while there, don’t forget to drop by the Bistro ‘Le Balmoral’, a 200 – seat bar and terrasse where small jazz combos perform overlooking the esplanade of the pristine ‘Quartier des spectacles’ .
One can only imagine that the Blumenthal family of a century ago would be greatly impressed with this latest example of patrimonial conservation, in this case the restoration of their remarkable Edwardian building constructed so long ago.
In a word, the Maison du Festival de Jazz de Montréal is already a cultural landmark, and a much sought after major city tourist attraction at that.