Restoring the Empress to its former glory: NDG community group rallies for the cause
Lindsay Richardson, CTV Montreal
Published Friday, October 6, 2017 9:15PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, October 6, 2017 10:04PM EDT
The Empress Theatre in NDG—boarded up and shrewdly vandalized—is a shadow of its former, regal self.
For 25 years, the theatre has been out of commission, abandoned by its patrons and left largely to ruin.
Built in 1927, the theatre was designed in the Egyptian style— an imposing concrete façade adorned with Egyptian motifs-- an aesthetic largely inspired by the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb by archaeologists in 1922.
It remains the only theatre in Canada designed in the Egyptian style.
A new community group, calling themselves “Friends of the Empress,” is hoping to prompt conversation about the future of the building and its eligibility for heritage status.
Through their website, the group hopes that NDG residents will contribute potential ideas for the restoration of the building—proposals have come and gone over the years, but no one has mobilized to revitalize the space.
“There is a group of concerned citizens that want more transparency, greater action and more commitment to actually doing something with our heritage that we have here in Montreal,” said Paul Scriver, one of the members of Friends of the Empress.
Group members are appealing for donations, volunteer hours, or commercial partners through their site—anything to garner the attention necessary to prompt municipal powers to halt the building’s impending deterioration.
At one point in time, parts of the building were used by local community groups like Head and Hands. But today, all entrances are gated-off.
“In this last stage we’ve seen the building boarded up and the community groups being pushed out—and so the building has gone into a quicker decline,” Scriver explained.
The group insists that the theatre’s location on Sherbrooke St makes it the perfect location to repurpose for arts and culture activities in the borough.
CDN-NDG Mayor Russell Copeman says he’s open to new ideas for the space, but ultimately wants to see it fully restored. His administration is working closely with the non-profit Empress Theatre Foundation and private-sector partners to re-vamp the space.
Last year, the Empress Theatre Foundation submitted a proposal to renovate the building, which ultimately fell through when they failed to prove they had 100 per cent of the funding.
The long-term plan for the Empress was initially put forth by Elaine Ethier, who is currently running for a position as municipal councillor alongside Mayor Denis Coderre.
Ethier was vocal about her desire to turn the vacant Empress Theatre into what one article refers to as a "true beating heart of the community."
At the time, the NDG borough hadn’t received any other offers to buy or develop the building.
“I think we’re very close to a permanent solution. We’re closer than we have ever been, and I’m expecting some very good news in a matter of days or weeks,” Copeman explained. “We insisted on a business plan that makes sense.”
One of the ideas put forth last year—albeit a temporary fix—involved the installation of the “Empress Porch”: an area in front of the theatre where patrons could unwind on tables and chairs while sampling from a small café.
The proposal was presenting by La Pepiniere, the same company that developed a number of outdoor spaces throughout the city, including the Jardins Gamelin and the Village au Pied-du-Courant.
In its early years, the Empress was a vaudeville theatre for burlesque and first-run films. The interior décor was conceptualized by Emmanuel Briffa, who also designed interiors for the Rialto, Theatre Outremont, and Snowdon Cinema.
In 1962, it evolved into a dinner theatre, and six years later, a two-tiered art film cinema.
In 1988, the building was acquired by Famous Players, and continued to bank on first-run films, until a fire ravaged the building’s interior in 1992.
In 2010, the Quebec government pulled its funding for the theatre, and ownership was subsequently returned to the City of Montreal—and although the city opened the floor for non-profits to present their ideas, they made it clear that they would not provide any funding.
For more information about Friends of the Empress, or to present an idea, visit their website at empress.planeteb.org.