Montreal's Robillard Building: From film landmark to neglect and flames

A historic theatre, an impressive work of architecture and throwback to Montreal’s party-town era on lower St-Laurent Boulevard, had been abandoned and finally gutted by fire.

Building made film history in 1896, showed work by famous Lumière brothers

The Robillard Building was built in the late 19th century but fell into neglect in the past few years and then burned completely in about 2 hours Nov. 17, 2016. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

The Robillard Building in Montreal's Chinatown was an impressive work of architecture and a throwback to Montreal's party-town era on lower St-Laurent Boulevard.

The Romanesque Revival building at 974 St-Laurent Blvd was designed by the Montreal architect firm Daoust and Gendron, which produced a number of other buildings in the area in the late 19th century.

The neighbourhood was a hot-spot for new development at the time and a popular draw for the French bourgeoisie, according to the City of Montreal's historical site, Montreal memories.

"One hundred years ago, this was a place of global resonance and now it's fallen apart in a fire," Heritage Montreal policy director Dinu Bumbaru told CBC News Thursday.

"It's terrible."

Cabinet of Curiosities and other uses

The Robillard Building as it looked in 1921. (City of Montreal archives)
The Robillard Building served as a theatre, cabinet of curiosities and venue for travelling performance artists from the U.S.

But, like many of Montreal's historic buildings, over the years it fell into disrepair.

The building was in use up until 2008, but it was vacant and boarded up when fire tore through it late Thursday morning.

Famous film house

The Robillard Building was showing film projections at a time when the genre consisted of short films played back-to-back as artists experimented with emerging moving picture technology.

On June 27, 1896, the first indoor motion picture projection in Canada was hosted within its walls — a screening of short films by France's famous Lumière Brothers.

The screening even beat Manhattan by just a few days, according to author Dane Lanken's book, Montreal Movie Palaces: Great Theatres of the Golden Era.

The problem with heritage status​

Heritage buildings being destroyed by fire and neglect aren't uncommon in Montreal.

In March, the Art Deco-era Snowdon Theatre was heavily damaged by a fire.

For Taylor Noakes, who is working to restore the historic Empress Theatre on Sherbrooke Street, the Snowdon Theatre fire hit close to home.

"Fire is our number one concern with the Empress," Noakes said. "We know people are crawling in there all the time."

He said heritage status can be a "double-edged sword" — on the one hand it protects historic buildings, but it can also end up shackling owners without the funding needed for their upkeep.

The Monument National dates from the same era as the Robillard Building. It has been maintained throughout the years and houses numerous theatre spaces. (Google)

Noakes said heritage status limits how these buildings can be used, how they can be repaired, and what materials can be employed in their reconstruction.  

So rather than upkeep the buildings, sometimes owners go a different route.

"Urban planners call it 'demolition via neglect,'" Noakes said.

"Once it falls to the ground people can do what they want with it."

with files from CBC's Melissa Fundira