Montreal

Friends of Empress pitch pop-up solution to revitalize NDG's 90-year-old theatre

For 25 years, the old Empress Theatre in Notre-Dame-de-Grace has been out of commission, boarded up and abandoned — but a group of community members and some design experts are trying, once again, to give it a new vocation.

Countless proposals have flopped since Empress Theatre closed to public 25 years ago

The Empress Theatre was closed to the public 25 years ago. (Radio-Canada)

For 25 years, the old Empress Theatre in Notre-Dame-de-Grace has been out of commission, boarded up and abandoned — but a group of community members and some design experts are trying, once again, to give it a new vocation.

Friends of the Empress have banded together to propose a temporary plan to revitalize the theatre, built in 1927 in the Egyptian style, inspired by the discovery five years earlier of Tutankhamen's tomb.

Their project, called the Empress Porch, is one of countless similar proposals that have come and gone over the past quarter-century.

Many have failed for one reason or another — often to do with a hefty price tag.

Friends of the Empress have come up with a temporary fix to brighten up the theatre, one they say would cost about $150,000.

An archival photo of the Empress Theatre in 1943. (Wikipedia)

"We're working on a completely new idea," said group member Paul Scriver.

The plan includes an area in front of the theatre on Sherbrooke Street West, complete with tables, chairs, barbecues and perhaps a little cafe.

"We want to do what the community wants to do — to bring this cultural gem back to life in our community," said John McKay, another member of the group. 

Despite several attempts to revitalize the space since it was shuttered after a fire in 1992, the theatre has remained closed to the public.

Friends of the Empress have launched a website to gather public opinions and ideas on a more permanent solution. They are looking for people to donate funds, volunteer or become commercial partners. 

"[We want] to start a consultative process. To actually get something really concrete going, through the process of people talking about what they want," Scriver said.

Waiting on a permanent solution

Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grace Mayor Russell Copeman told CBC that he's always open to hearing new proposals, but his goal remains finding a once-and-for-all revitalization plan for the theatre.

"I'm very prepared to look at all sorts of temporary uses," he said. "I think more importantly though, we have to find a more permanent solution."

He said that while the goal to bring the space back to the community is a shared one, the proposal doesn't speak to "where the money would come from."

Copeman said his administration is still working with the non-profit Empress Theatre Foundation and private sector partners in hopes of getting the space up and running again as a working cinema and community cultural space.

The foundation submitted a $9.5-million proposal to renovate the theatre last year.

At the time, the CDN-NDG borough said it wouldn't make a formal deal until the group could prove it had 100 per cent of the funding in place.

Designers, promoters involved

The Empress Porch proposal was presented by La Pépinière, a non-profit design collective that develops pop-up spaces "that promote local culture, fostering community involvement and improving living environments," according to its website.

La Pépinière developed the Jardins Gamelin in 2016 and the Village au Pied-du-Courant in 2015.

A concert promoter, Greenland Productions, and the place-making initiative planète B are also involved.

"We say, we don't have to wait for the perfect storm," said Jérôme Glad of La Pépinière. "We can do something next year." 

The project could be up and running by the spring, he added.

"It's not that much of a cost to create a sparkle to make this building live again."

With files from Steve Rukavina and Marilla Steuter-Martin

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