Montreal·Video

What's next for 217 Young, a building from Griffintown's working-class past?

Take a tour of the building Centaur has been quietly making its sets in for decades, before it's gone.

Centaur Theatre's scene shop will need to move now that developers have bought the property

Centaur Theatre's scene shop on Young Street has churned out hundreds of sets for the theatre since it moved into the space in the 1980s. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

At 217 and 219 Young Street in Griffintown, there is a 19th century building that looks increasingly out of place.

When it was first built, in 1875, it served as Montreal police station 7.

There were only a few cells, and the officers mainly dealt with disorderly behaviour in the densely packed, working-class neighbourhood.

The cells are long gone and the building has served a number of purposes since then. Its current tenant is the Centaur Theatre — Montreal's largest English language-only theatre, which has been creating sets in the space since 1985.

It's been sold to developers, but the fate of the building is still unclear.

Daniel Barkley, Centaur's scenic painter, jokes he can't afford to shop in the area anymore.

Barkley is part of the neighbourhood's old guard, people who remember a time before the soup kitchens became Starbucks, before high-rise condos and fine dining.

A man with half a dozen baguettes from the trendy Bête à Pain bakery next door walks by the scene shop. Barkley jokes he can't afford to go to the new spots that have taken over the once rough and deserted area. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

A few years ago, he saw a young woman running alone around 6 p.m. and it caught him by surprise.

"I thought, 'Wow, she is in the wrong neighbourhood,'" Barkley said.

Griffintown's proximity to the Centaur's theatre space and headquarters, in Old Montreal, made the former police station a great spot to set up shop.

Barkley has been working there for 24 years and said that the neighbourhood has never been particularly dangerous, just deserted, save for a few heavy metal pop-up venues and some support centres for disadvantaged people.

Take a tour of the building Centaur has been quietly making its sets in for decades, before it's gone:

Centaur Theatre's scene shop prepares to move out as developers move in.

3 years ago
Duration 2:34
Chuck Childs and Daniel Barkley have built sets for decades in this 19th century building in Griffintown. We got a tour before they move.

Centaur general manager Chuck Childs has been with the theatre for 41 years and worked in the building for more than 30 years.

He said the area was largely frozen in time, as an old, working-class neighbourhood, until about 2010, when real estate developers bought up large swaths of it and got to work rezoning "the Griff" for residential properties.

"People suddenly saw the value of a location near downtown," Childs said.

Designers can spend weeks on their maquettes, which serve as a scale model of the set. A spare room acts as a maquette graveyard — the team feels too much work went into these mini-artworks to throw them out. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Getting ready to go

It's still being determined when, and where, Centaur's scene shop will go.

Childs and Barkley are looking forward to what a new space could offer. On their wish list: even floors and some extra windows.

Their current workspace bears just a few small references to the hundreds of shows that have been built in it.

The only built pieces to escape the cull are props from Schwartz's the Musical, innumerable chairs (designers always want a special kind of chair, Barkley says), a skull wall from Romeo and Juliet (great to liven up parties, says Childs) and a room full of maquettes — mini-representations of a set.

The uneven, cracked stone floors, complete with random steps from one space to another, are a bit of a hazard. Childs hopes the new space won't have quite so much charm. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Childs said Schwartz's the Musical was a show that really connected with the audience. He said those are the ones that give him the most satisfaction to work on.

Among the things being left behind in the move will be some creepy holdovers from old Griffintown — including a good ghost story.

Griffintown prostitute Mary Gallagher is one of Montreal's most notable spirits. Brutally murdered in 1879, she is said to return every seven years and haunt the area where her body was found — 242 William Street, about a kilometre away from the scene shop.

Her killers was jailed at the building when it was the police station, says Haunted Montreal tour guide Donovan King.

"While nobody saw the ghost of Headless Mary at the police station, many terrified Grifintowners did rush there to report her spirit." 

Death smiley faces and cat smiley faces are stencilled onto the walls and floors. A former head carpenter had an affinity for them. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

Her next appearance is this coming Thursday, June 27, on the 140th anniversary of her death.

Barkley said he doesn't know that any specific ghost is lingering inside their building, but that it feels like something's kicking around.

"When I'm working alone in the building — I'm talking six in the evening — it is creepy in here. I'm just talking about it, I get goosebumps," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elysha Enos

Journalist

Elysha Enos is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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