Skip to main content

New Hope for Maison Alcan

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

--November 5, 2015.

Quebec initiates bid to protect it as a national heritage property

Heritage advocates are rejoicing over news that the Quebec government is taking steps to protect the Maison Alcan complex on Sherbrooke St., as a national heritage property.

The move by Minister of Culture and Communications Hélène David means the government has a year to evaluate the heritage value of the property before rendering a final decision. The classification would stop a plan to demolish part of the complex to make way for a 30-storey commercial tower.

At the same time, David gave notice of her department’s intent to classify another historic building, the Ernest-Cormier Studio at the corner of Milton and St-Urbain Sts., as a heritage property.

“The Maison Alcan complex and the Ernest-Cormier Studio constitute assets of national interest,” David said. “They both possess great historic and architectural value as well as a symbolic dimension for Quebecers.”

Quebec’s move to classify the Maison Alcan does not mean the controversial project to redevelop an entire city block on Sherbrooke St. W. between Stanley and Drummond Sts. is off the table, a city spokesperson told the Montreal Gazette Thursday. The project remains under study. Richard Bergeron, Montreal’s executive committee member in charge of downtown strategy, said the city was already re-evaluating the Cirque du Soleil’s project to ensure it responds to real estate needs downtown.

“The evaluation by the Conseil du patrimoine culturel du Québec will be done parallel to our own evaluations,” he said. “We are convinced that the architectural elements that we believe are of heritage value will be classified as such.”

The Maison Alcan complex, completed in the early 1980s as a headquarters for the mining company and aluminum manufacturer, was hailed at the time as an example of how cities can give new life to heritage buildings by amalgamating them into new structures. The complex was the brainchild of former Alcan CEO David Culver, who adored the older buildings on Sherbrooke St.

The complex combined Atholstan House (1172 Sherbrooke W.), Beique House (1176 Sherbrooke W.), the former Berkeley Hotel (1188 Sherbrooke W.), the Holland House (1196 Sherbrooke W.), the Klinkhoff House (1200 Sherbrooke W.), the Salvation Army tower (2050 Stanley) and the former Emmanuel Congregational Church (now called Église de la Citadelle at 2085 Drummond St.) with a new structure called the Davis Building (2121 Drummond St. and 2100 and 2200 Stanley St.).

“As an ensemble, it was truly an outstanding achievement and an act of genuine leadership and vision from David Culver (which showed) there’s no need to destroy a city’s heritage to develop it,” said Dinu Bumbaru, policy director of Heritage Montreal.

Bumbaru said the Maison Alcan “represents a milestone in the way we developed conservation practices in Quebec and Canada. We have to look at heritage not only as preserving buildings from the faraway past ...

“Here was a corporate citizen that successfully took up a challenge to marry old and new.”

Alcan became Rio Tinto Alcan after the merger in 2007, and the company sold the Maison Alcan to Cirque du Soleil in 2013. Rio Tinto Alcan is expected to move out of the building early next year. The proposed project by Cirque du Soleil (along with Yale Properties Ltd. and architects Lemay & Associés) would involve demolishing the Salvation Army tower, a seven-storey office building on Stanley.

Also slated for demolition under the project is the Winter Club, a former skating club more recently used by the Donnacona Navy Reserve Group, at 2055 Drummond St. That property, adjacent to the Maison Alcan complex, was left off the list of those cited Thursday for classification as protected heritage.

But Bumbaru said the year-long evaluation process by the government will offer an opportunity for heritage groups to raise the case for preserving the Winter Club “as part of the significant setting of Maison Alcan.”

The Cormier Studio was designed in the early 1920s by renowned Montreal architect Ernest Cormier, who also designed the Supreme Court of Canada building in Ottawa, the main building of the Université de Montréal, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s former home on Pine Ave.

Studio Cormier is now vacant and was recently put up for sale by the Quebec government. It had most recently been used as an artists’ residence for a cultural exchange program between Quebec and France.

The sale came to the attention of Heritage Montreal after passersby noticed a “For Sale” sign on the side of the building.

Bumbaru said heritage buildings with historical value, particularly those owned by the provincial or federal governments, should not be “just released for sale as if they are excess filing cabinets.”

“It’s wonderful to know that Maison Alcan and Studio Cormier are to be given full protection by the Ministère de la culture,” architect and urban planning activist Phyllis Lambert said by email. She is travelling abroad.

“This is extremely important for Montreal culturally, visually and economically. Our culture, our built world, is the linchpin of a complex and strong identity.”

Lambert publicly lambasted Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre in August over the Maison Alcan project and other recent development ideas the mayor has advocated.

She told the Montreal Gazette that Coderre’s approach to development is “willy nilly ” and said the mayor was sending Montreal back to an era when a lack of planning and respect for heritage or consultation reigned at city hall.

She also called on the province to classify the Square Mile downtown as a historic neighbourhood and to give it the same sort of protection as Old Montreal enjoys.

Lambert wants the culture department to create an inventory of buildings of heritage interest in Montreal “so that we do not continue to have to respond to crises,” she said.

An inventory would also make the public aware of the city’s history and the city’s distinctive qualities, while developers would know where they can and can’t intervene, she added.