Monday, April 11, 2011

A Blasé City Council & The Pantages Theatre

I sighed heavily this week upon hearing about the fate of The Pantages Theatre in Vancouver. Those of you who read regularly are aware of how much i like Vancouver BC. There are some really wonderful things about the place and that's why i continue to live here. However there are many things about the city that bother me, for example the issue of homelessness, how Mayor Gregor Robertson and his cronies attempt to regulate/control political expression and the lack of support from city officials for independent music and arts.

Another is the complete lack of regard for heritage and architectural history. I moved from a city where there was a 1,000 year old cathedral in my neighbourhood to a city where a developers idea of architecture consists of yet another steel and glass skyscraper or overpriced concrete condo building. I've never been to any other city that cares so little about its heritage and historical buildings. Tragically in Vancouver, these buildings are being ignored and destroyed by the very people who are responsible for maintaining that history.

The Pantages Theatre is located at Main and Hastings and is the oldest surviving vaudeville theatre in Western Canada. It was the second in a chain of 70 theatres built by vaudeville impresario and early film producer Alexander Pantages and designed by Vancouver architect Edward Evans Blackmore.

The 650 seat theatre cost nearly $100,000 and was fireproof, being made entirely of brick. The first front foyer featured white enamel bricks, surmounted by a beautifully ornate plaster ceiling. The stage was 30’ wide, and 38’ deep. Below the stage were nine dressing rooms and an orchestra pit.

Pantages actually built two theatres in Vancouver. The other was located two blocks away at 20 West Hastings, designed by architect Bernard Marcus Priteca (who also designed the Orpheum on Granville Street) and opened in June 1917. It was known as The Majestic/The Odeon Hastings and was a much larger, more ornate venue, seating nearly 2,000 people. Despite public protest it was demolished in 1967 to make a parking lot.

The Pantages was a much loved and used venue, over the years it served as a theatre, music venue and cinema. Over the years, the theatre has changed hands several times and it has been vacant since 1994. Numerous attempts to save it have failed and the building slowly fell into disrepair, a sort of demolition through neglect.

In July 2008 the previous city council turned down the current owner Marc Williams final proposal to restore the theatre and a proposed blackbox studio, art gallery and 136 units of housing. Instead city council agreed to conduct a feasibility study. Once a new council was in place there was still no discussion with the owner about reversing the previous council's decision. As the council and politicians procrastinated, Williams was unable to restore the site and as a result it continued to deteriorate, to the point where it was deemed unsafe.

In 2009 The Pantages Theatre Arts Society abandoned its attempt to preserve and restore the theatre. Salvage work has been done in the past year to try and save any interior objects possible.

The Pantages Theatre Arts Society released the following statement in December 2009

"You may have heard that the Pantages Theatre Arts Society has given up its three-year long fight to restore the historic theatre on East Hastings Street in Vancouver's downtown east side. It is not because we have abandoned the many social, economic, heritage and cultural objectives inherent in the proposals that have been put forward to the City of Vancouver (and others). Simply put, the theatre has deteriorated to such a point that there is virtually nothing left to restore.

Its decades-long deterioration was exacerbated by a roof fire last summer, which resulted in the fire department cutting holes in the roof to ensure that the fire was contained. Since then, the stage has collapsed into the basement, the balcony is no longer safe and, according to the owner's engineering consultant, the building is now structurally 'stressed'. Indeed, because of insurance and liability issues, it is no longer safe to enter the building to retrieve anything of historical significance. Those of you who have toured the theatre over the past three years, or participated in any of our events, would not recognize the theatre in its current state.

As you know, we came within a whisker of saving the building about a year ago when we thought we had the full support of Vancouver City Council to purchase the theatre and adjoining properties for a combination theatre restoration and social housing project.

However, Council opted instead to undertake further studies on the project -- despite the fact that we have been warning everyone for years that a decision was required soonest, or there may not be anything left to restore. Alas, our prediction has come true even sooner than we had guessed."

Photo: Ian Smith, PNG, Vancouver Sun

Despite years of protest, proposals and pleading, a demolition permit was issued by the city last week for The Pantages and surrounding buildings. The Pantages joins a long list of historical sites that have been demolished in Vancouver. Yet those in city council seem content to sit in their offices while yet another piece of the city's heritage is razed to the ground this week. Remaining Pantages theatres in Seattle, Winnipeg and Toronto were designated as historic sites and saved. Vancouver wasn't so lucky.

To read more about Alexander Pantages and his theatres:

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