Fire destroys historic Montreal building famed for Canada's 1st film screening in 1896

A major fire today in Montreal's Chinatown has gutted a historic building famed for hosting the first film screening in Canada.

Facade of Robillard Building unsafe and can't be saved, says fire chief, as police take over investigation

The four-storey Robillard Building dates to 1889. 1:03

A major fire today in Montreal's Chinatown has gutted a historic building famed for hosting the first film screening in Canada.

The four-storey Robillard Building at 974 St-Laurent Blvd. at the corner of Viger Street West dates to the late 1800s and was vacant at the time of Thursday's fire.

Montreal police are now investigating the cause of the fire, which was reported at 11:19 a.m. ET Thursday.

More than 50 vehicles and 120 firefighters responded to the five-alarm fire.

One witness, Robert Décarie, said the smoke and heat from the fire were intense.

"The smoke was as high as 100 metres, and at one point you could feel the heat," he said.

As of 3:30 p.m., Montreal Fire Department Chief Yvon Daunais said the fire was not considered under control because it was still burning in an adjacent three-storey building located at 970 St-Laurent Blvd.

He said 80 firefighters were still on-site and the following streets were closed around the scene:

  • St-Laurent Boulevard
  • Clark Street
  • Viger Street
  • De la Gauchetière Street

Daunais said the facade of the Robillard Building was too unstable to save, and heavy equipment had to be called in to demolish it.

The Robillard Building is pictured in May 2016. (Denis-Carl Robidoux/Centre d'histoire de Montréal)

'Important piece' of Montreal history

According to the Centre d'histoire de Montreal, the first indoor motion-picture projection in Montreal was held at the building on June 27, 1896.

The event was the first of its kind in Canada and predated the first film screening in the United States by two days, according to the centre.

The Robillard Building in Montreal as it looked in 1921. A fire Thursday gutted the building that housed Canada's first motion picture screening on June 27, 1896. (City of Montreal archives)

"The building was a very important piece of 19th-century history," said Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Heritage Montreal. 

Fire sparks political reaction

The Opposition Projet Montréal condemned what it said is the all too frequent destruction of historic buildings in Montreal through neglect and fire.

Projet Montréal said Thursday's fire was the fifth to affect a heritage building this year.

"The Robillard Building was abandoned for a long time before it finally succumbed to flames — where was the City of Montreal this whole time?" the party's heritage critic, Anne-Marie Sigouin, said in a news release.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre responded to questions about the fire from Jerusalem, where he is travelling with a delegation.

"It is always painful to see part of our heritage that goes like this," he said. "We want to protect our heritage. It's part of the signature of Montreal."

      1 of 0

      Coderre said he would wait for the results of the investigation before commenting further.

      In a news release on Thursday, the City of Montreal revealed the building had been inspected in 2014 by the Borough of Ville-Marie. After the visit, the building started to receive some repairs, but asbestos was discovered and all work had to stop.

      A city official told CBC Montreal that the Robillard Building was of "heritage interest" but did not have heritage building status.

      That means the building has recognized heritage qualities, such as its architecture, but is not classified as a heritage building under municipal, provincial and federal statutes, the official said.