The Snowdon Theatre is a Montreal icon.
Unlike other establishments in the city, the art deco building has remained in the same location on Decarie for 75 years. Renowned decorator Emmanuel Briffa, designer of the Rialto Theatre on Parc Avenue and over 60 others across Canada, completed the Snowdon Theatre in February 1937.
Originally built in the Snowdon district, the theatre now resides in the borough of Côte-des-Neiges-Nôtre-Dame-de-Grâce. The Snowdon Junction was a transportation hub in the first half of the 20th century, owing much of its success and development to the addition of the extension and prominence of the streetcar system. While the theatre has never moved, a number of small changes were made over the years. The first and most noticeable was the addition of the marquee and the refashioning of the entrance in 1950. Before closing in 1982, the cinema switched to playing X-rated movies in 1968 (you can thank the revolutionaries for that one) and later played Charlie Chaplin films for an entire year in 1972 – the reason behind that motive remains a mystery.
Streamline Moderne-styled cinema has struggled noticeably in recent years. The lower level was converted into a fitness club several years ago, but the rest of the structure has been neglected to the point of decay. In fact, a 2009 article in The Monitor headlined a column about the amphitheatre as “Is Snowdon Theatre suffering from demolition by neglect?” In the article, heritage activists from Heritage Montreal discuss evidence of deterioration inside the theatre, which has been poorly covered up or ignored during renovations paid for by the city of Montreal.
Under Mayor Doré, the city purchased the building a decade ago, which still has activists and councillors confused as to why the municipal government doesn’t extend more of an effort into protecting such an important piece of property. Furthermore, citizens are concerned the theatre will continue to face neglect to the point of destruction.
Recognized as one of the “jewels among our heritage buildings” by David Hanna, former president of Montreal Heritage and a professor of urban planning, the future of the Snowdon Theatre is uncertain. Despite the relative importance it once held in the city of Montreal, this institution may serve the same fate as many other cultural gems forgotten in time.
Louise Harel, leader of the Official Opposition at Montreal’s City Hall, was quoted as saying, “These public institutions have been neglected in recent years but form part of our historical heritage in this Montréal district. The dilapidation of our architectural and community heritage must stop. NDG’s sense of community identity depends on it.”
There is a significant cause for concern. One of the many reasons our city is viewed as culturally rich and distinct is in large part due to the historical facets of the past– something that shouldn’t be disregarded.
As an advocate for the revival of Snowdon Theatre– and the protection of Montreal’s heritage in general– it would be interesting to see if and how the auditorium could be used if properly restored. Since the inauguration of the cinema, the surrounding area has been transformed remarkably; from a prominent theatre on the corner of a central tram stop to the friendly shadow it casts over the landmark Snowdon Deli. Realistically, it would be a shame to see the theatre crumble before our eyes.
Let’s just hope the theatre isn’t one more thing to be lost in the whirlwind of Montreal’s perpetual reconstruction.
Sketches courtesy of John’s Sketch Journal