Published in the Westmount Examiner in March 2011.
Stone by stone, joist by joist, the unsavoury business of removing yet another heritage building from the Montreal landscape is earnestly underway. No, I am not writing about the Redpath mansion about which there has been significant controversy the last few weeks (“Redpath decline is outrageous,” Gazette, February 1, 2010, op-ed page). Instead, I am referring to the current dismantling of yet another jewel of Montreal’s Victorian gothic architecture situated in the very heart of this city’s Latin Quarter.
Indeed, it’s hard to reconcile the present demolition of the old Trinity Church on St. Denis Street with the much – touted motto of the Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec: “Patrimoine religieux: c’est sacré”.
That’s not to say that the ‘Conseil’ itself is responsible for the early English Gothic church’s demise but, like many other authorities, including long-established heritage groups, it certainly does not appear to have made much of an effort to save the near ancient structure.
It’s difficult to appreciate exactly what transpired with regard to the pre-Confederation religious edifice, some time ago considered to be one of the most beautiful churches on the Island of Montreal. In the days leading up to the building’s dismantling, no statement was issued by either the City of Montreal or the Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM), the French language super hospital. For all that is known, the demolition permit could just as easily have been issued in the middle of the night. Was this what the Tremblay Administration meant in its 2004 master plan for urban planning by promising to respond ‘proactively’ in the defense of heritage buildings?
What is clear is that the presence of so many different jurisdictions involved in the file did not facilitate anyone inclined to try and save the ecclesiastic edifice. Who was ultimately responsible for the building’s preservation – the borough of Ville Marie, the City of Montreal, Cultural Affairs Quebec? Certainly it was not CHUM whose only purpose, despite an enormous budget, was Trinity’s removal from the surroundings. There was never a thought on their part of attempting to integrate in any serious fashion the celebrated structure into their plans.
In the end, however, the City of Montreal, must assume the better part of the blame with regard to the loss of Trinity. Despite the fact that the city itself had long ago classified the church to be “of significant historic interest”, it later paradoxically issued the necessary papers permitting CHUM to proceed with its destruction. Obviously, City Hall did not make life as difficult for CHUM as they did for earlier bidders to the building’s future prospects.
Take, for example, an extensive proposal presented to the city in the year 2000 to convert the abandoned structure into a restaurant and concert hall (Dossier No. S00054116). The submission would have left the magnificent greystone exterior entirely untouched, giving the edifice a new lease on life. While City Hall and its various departments went through the necessary legal motions of seeking the opinions of others with regard to the scheme, it was clear from the beginning that it would not be easy for the bidding company.
True to form, municipal bureaucrats immediately found all sorts of shortcomings in the plan, not the least of which was the amazing claim that a restaurant and concert hall were not really appropriate in a church building of such historic importance! Understandably, the offer was eventually withdrawn and Trinity was left to decay yet another decade. Not surprisingly, given the complexity of dealing with the various levels of jurisdiction in this regard, no further proposals from the private sector came forward.
Even so, City Hall seems to have one set of rules for itself and quite a different set for others. Years ago it essentially obliged Concordia University to preserve and integrate the façade of the Royal George Apartment building into the university’s new library pavilion on Bishop Street. Similar examples of imposed ‘facadism’ can be seen opposite McGill University on Sherbrooke Street and at the campus of UQAM, not too far from where Trinity’s dismantling continues today.
So the question remains: why did the municipal administration or Cultural Affairs Quebec not insist that CHUM integrate the landmark structure into its architectural plans? At the end of the day, is not CHUM getting its considerable money from the public purse?
Failing that, the sacred edifice (which, for one reason or another, is being removed stone by stone in any event) should have been transported elsewhere and re-assembled in its entirety. This was done in 1931 with the then St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church on Dorchester Street that was put back together on the campus of College St. Laurent where it still survives to this very day as a beautiful art gallery and museum. If that could be done in the midst of the Great Depression, there is no excuse for it not being done today.
Meanwhile, Montreal loses yet another historic church building as the provincial motto “je me souviens” is beginning to look less and less relevant in this city, not to mention the now somewhat meaningless “Notre Patrimoine Religieux: C’est Sacré”.