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York Theatre has a history

York insideThe York Theatre, then called the Carlton Theatre, opened in 1938. Six storefronts and 45 apartments were at the front; theatre patrons walked down a long lobby to the screening room at the rear of the building. The theatre closed in 1989, and has steadily deteriorated, inside and out.The York¹s style is characterized as streamlined art-deco. There are only two similar theatres in Canada, the Eglinton in Toronto and the Vogue in Vancouver; both have been declared national historic sites by Parks Canada through the work of the Historic Theatres¹ Trust.

The elegant interior of the York was designed by Emmanuel Briffa, and what remains is all that is left of the six theatre interiors he designed in Canada. The materials were popular in the Deco period: terrazzo, marble, stainless steel, plastic veneer, vitrolite and plate glass. Along the walls are vertical panels featuring stylized nymphs, considered somewhat daring at the time.

The following letter to the editor of the Concordia University magazine for alumni is reprinted here with the writer¹s permission:

York outsideI was both saddened and discouraged to see Concordia¹s recent plans for a new development on the York Cinema site, published in the article ³Governors approve Concordia¹s master plan² in your December issue. These plans will entail the demolition of the historic York Cinema, one of the best Streamlined Art Deco theatre buildings built in Canada.

How ironic that the article is directly preceded by another, titled ³Forgotten history,² written by [historian and honorary doctorate recipient] David Jay Bercuson. His notion that our understanding of our past is necessary to forging our future is a basic yet poignant message. It applies to our built heritage equally well. Not only should we understand our history better, but we should also appreciate it.

In the case of the York Cinema, there is a wonderful opportunity for Concordia to restore the building and use it as an anchor for faculty and general university activities. The York Cinema building houses not only a superbly designed auditorium, but also several revenue-producing storefronts and apartment dwellings. There is no reason why this building, which is still in relatively good condition, cannot be restored and put successfully to use in tandem with the plans for a new fine arts and engineering/computer sciences facility.

The York building was designed by Perry, Luke and Little, whose significant body of work enhances Montreal¹s cityscape. The firm¹s collection of architectural drawings and plans now belong to the world-class Canadian Centre for Architecture museum. Indeed, the unique York building has received protected status for many years by the City of Montreal.

At the end of 1997, I met with Vice-Rector Services Charles Emond and some of his colleagues to discuss the various options for an adaptive re-use project for the building. I came forward as a founding director of a national charity called Historic Theatres¹ Trust. I have travelled across North America to visit all kinds of theatre and cinema restoration projects, many of which have been successfully undertaken by university and educational facilities.

Last year, Dinu Bumbaru, representing Heritage Montreal, also met with Mr. Emond to express their concern for any plans to demolish the building. Apparently, our input has gone unheeded.

No independent study of the site to determine its architectural value and potential for re-use has been commissioned. No restoration architect or specialist has been retained. A more interesting and creative solution can be found for the York site, one that will cherish our past and accommodate the University¹s present and future needs.

Janet MacKinnon (BFA 84)Heritage Buildings¹ Trust

Vice-Rector Services Charles Emond replies:

Last summer, we acquired the York Theatre property and adjoining lot to help consolidate the University, provide better facilities and allow for program growth.

We were immediately confronted with deciding whether to restore the York Theatre and the apartments and commercial storefront that are integrated into the same site.

The Historic Theatres¹ Trust makes a compelling case for preserving buildings of historic importance. The difficulty is whether Concordia should use the limited government funds promised for new construction or the donations it hopes to receive from alumni and friends to preserve this now badly deteriorated building.

This would make sense if the restored facilities met the University¹s needs, but initial assessments suggest that they will not. At best, they would either replicate existing holdings or require users to accept far less than ideal space.

Another major obstacle is the high cost of restoring the crumbling York Theatre site, which is likely to be about $4 million. The University will be challenged to raise enough money to meet its own needs, let alone adding this further expense.

I explained these very real limitations to Janet MacKinnon in our initial discussions, and suggested that the Historic Theatres¹ Trust could take the lead in raising the required funds. I indicated that Concordia University would co-operate in this endeavour, and that we would not proceed precipitously to demolish the building.

Our plans to develop the York Theatre site are far from final. We expect to develop this site in two phases. The part of the lot where the York Theatre buildings stand may not be exploited for another 10 years, although the structural integrity of these buildings would almost assuredly be affected by Phase 1 construction. Indeed, we have recently had to invest significant sums of money to retain the brickwork of the fragile York Theatre building, as it was becoming a danger to pedestrians.

Over the next six months to a year, we will be discussing the future of the York Theatre with the City of Montreal and other interested parties, such as the Historic Theatres¹ Trust. The options range from complete restoration to selective restoration to outright demolition. However, it is clear that saving the original building, while a valiant project, will almost certainly require separate funding.

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.