Published in the Montrteal Gazette on November 21, 2014
Montreal’s own version of ‘demolition derby’ will shortly be underway any day now.
The recent decision of a Superior Court judge to force Montreal’s Sud-Ouest borough to grant a demolition permit to tear down the old Negro Community Centre will once again amount to a significant loss for this city’s much maligned heritage (“Court orders demolition despite borough object,” Gazette, November 18, 2014, A-10)
One day it’s the re-naming of a significant city thoroughfare (University Street, comes to mind); the next day it’s the imminent levelling of a long neglected historic structure, which in this case was at a time home to the much-treasure Negro Community Centre.
The one time elegant edifice was constructed in 1890-91 as the West End Methodist Church. It held that title until 1925 when it became the West End United Church.
Designed by Canadian architect Sidney Badgley, the building changed both civic number and vocation when, in 1929, it was turned over to the administration of the Old Brewery Mission that used the edifice under the name ‘Iverley Settlement House’.
As the years passed, the grey ashlar masonry structure became the long sought after home of the Negro Community Centre. The parishioners of Union United Church founded the acclaimed organization in the late 1920’s, and housed it until 1955 when the NCC moved in to the old West End Methodist Church building, which they purchased as their own some ten years later. With demographics and economic factors constantly changing, the Negro Community Centre abandoned the structure in 1995. It has stood deserted, decaying, since that time.
While the question of what to do with derelict buildings is obviously very complex, a particular pattern seems to have emerged on how we deal with this issue here in Montreal. We just do nothing and let nature takes its course.
Several precedents, all within the last quarter century or so, come to mind.
The stylish Seville theatre, which was constructed in 1929 within a block of the recently – erected Montreal Forum, became abandoned in 1985. Throughout the post war era, the 1150 seat playhouse saw live performances by some of the great stars of the period – Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Connie Francis are just a few who come to mind.
Following now a familiar approach, City Hall declared the rapidly – crumbling structure in 1990 to be ‘a historic site’, deserving of protection. Nevertheless, twenty years later, the same authority issued the necessary papers allowing its demolition.
Around the same time period, a part of the magnificent Queen’s Hotel stood derelict on Peel Street. The red sandstone structure was erected in the early 1890’s conveniently close to the old GTR Bonaventure Station. When that train depot was supplanted in 1943 by Central Station, the glory days of the old Queen’s had clearly passed, and a slow but certain decline set in.
Despite a report in the Montreal Star on January 31, 1976, that a European hotelier invested $1,500,000 in a facelift for the ageing edifice, the Queen’s was closed and abandoned within a year or two. Like the NCC, it sat there, unheated, exposed to the elements, until the Doré Administration judged it a danger in 1988 and ordered its pulling down.
More recently, we have also the example of the old Trinity Church on St. Denis Street that was levelled in 2011, after having sat deserted for some 15 years. Because it too had been classified ‘of significant historic interest’, the municipal authority rejected as ‘inappropriate’ for a building that had once been a church a serious proposal in 2000 by a private investor to convert the pre – Confederation, early English Gothic edifice into an upscale restaurant and concert hall. Paradoxically, a decade later, that same City Hall issued the necessary papers allowing its demolition.
When the 1893 Royal Victoria Hospital is vacated next April, there will be little time to decide what to do with this precious heritage multiplex before the first winter sets in. And if nothing is done quickly, all Montrealers now know what will eventually happen.
Below, West End Methodist Church, 1891