Going out to see Slumdog Millionaire tonight offered a very agreeable urban experience: hundreds of people lined up down the block to get into Edmonton’s early-modern 1940 Garneau Theatre. It was unseasonably warm today (several degrees above freezing), so people seemed very happy to be waiting outside in the night and there was a lot of sidewalk conviviality. Some strangers in front of us in the line even offered to share their pizza with us.
The theater building itself was a topic of conversation while standing in line for tickets. A January 7th blogpost by Dave Cournoyer reinvigorated rumors about major changes coming to the Garneau. A local lawyer, John Day, purchased the building a few years ago, and ever since there have been fears that he intended to raze the entire site and replace it with condos.
Day is actually responsible for some of Edmonton’s most contextually-sensitive recent architecture: the Sobey’s building on 104th Street and Jasper Avenue that succeeded the troublesome low-rent Cecil Hotel, and the replacement for the Albert’s Restaurant building on Whyte Avenue that burned in 2003, both landmarks in their own right. The Garneau, however, neither a beer-sodden troublespot nor (knock on wood) burned to the ground, appears commercially healthy, so rumors of its redevelopment are less likely to be met with easy acceptance.
A January 10th Edmonton Journal story dispelled some of the worst fears. Mr Day’s intentions appear to be to redevelop the commercial units facing 109 Street, possibly adding a second storey, but not to tear down the theater. Reconstruction of the commercial units would require the removal of the 68-year old wood-framed marquee, likely necessitating its reconstruction. As Day stated in the Journal story: “I don’t think we can just take it off and put it back.”
But isn’t a building like this protected? Can he really just do that? The answer, unfortunately, is yes he can. Although identified on the City’s Register of Historic Buildings, the building has not been designated as a Municipal Historic Resource. The City of Edmonton provides incentives to property owners who wish to officially designate their property, usually in the form of grants for renovations, in exchange for the right to ensure that the essential heritage characteristics are retained, that the building is maintained in fair condition and that the building will not be demolished. Designation, however, is voluntary, and while City Council can choose to designate a building against the wishes of a property owner, this is not a power that Council is quick to exercise.
So, the fate of this landmark is in Mr Day’s hands. Judging by his past successes, those hands appear to be sensitive and capable. Ultimately, if his intention is to remove but then faithfully reconstruct the most essential heritage element of this building, the marquee, then it can be argued that there is little to complain about. The landmark will be renewed and ready for another 68 years of service, and most Edmontonians will soon forget that the reconstructed marquee is not an original piece. But the trick will be in doing it exceedingly well, and I would be willing to bet large sums of money that Mr Day will be unable to avoid significant controversy once his plans are finally revealed, regardless of the merits of his design. At the very least, the fact that the beloved Pharos Pizza will not return post-renovations will result in nostalgic heartache on the part of many. This will be interesting to watch.