When cultural initiatives use industrial vestiges to build a better future; a symbol of the collective awakening to Griffintown’s rich heritage
The New City Gas Co. can be found only a few minutes from the downtown core. An aged complex, composed of six red brick buildings, characteristic of Montreal’s industrial boom. Considered “the birthplace of the lighting revolution” , this building was once a gas lighting plant. Now a portion of it has been converted into an infamous music venue of the same name, but mainly it is the portly emblem of the quickly developing Griffintown sector’s rich industrial heritage.
Built in multiple, successive phases, this complex’s architectural composition, as well as its identity, has been slowly forged over many years. Built in the 19th century, its current aspect is the product of over 100 years of history.
As such, it invites us to reflect on a number of subjects; civic awareness of heritage, the challenges of heritage conservation, and belated recognition of threats and of value. It reveals notably that the wishes of property developers are not always in contradiction to those of the heritage professionals, or local citizens.
Is New City Gas the emblem of the direction for the quickly developing face the south-west borough of Griffintown, or is it merely a small victory, among many losses?
Through this short article, we hope to shed light on the evolution of this historical industrial complex, and the issues surrounding its conservation, in anticipation of discovering (or rediscovering) this space with you during the Festival Vivre le patrimoine! August 21-23rd 2015 at 141 Rue Ann, Montreal.
The first iterance of the building was designed by the famous Montreal Architect John Ostell between 1859 and 1861 and remains one of few witnesses to the first phase of the industrial revolution in North America. Notably, it was the first to furnish gas lighting publicly for the city streets of Montreal, and inside many places of work. Once past this golden era, the same complex became a symbol of the quick and brutal de-industrialisation of many Montreal neighbourhoods. The discovery of electricity caused the eventual boarding up of this plant. In 1944, it was expropriated by Quebec’s Hydro-electric Commission. Following this, years of uncertainty about the fate of the building ensued, as it passed from dis-use to industrial use without any real recognition of its value. Luckily, the 2000s would mark a turning point in the life of this space. A new owner took charge, and the space acquired a new life. It also took on a new image; as the industrial space was re-appropriated by private interests in collaboration with the cultural community as a home for art and music. Once the source of lighting for Montreal streets, this space becomes the source of cultural and artistic regeneration, the “renaissance” you might say, of Griffintown.
The Heritage Value
Although some parts of the building have faded away, in general the complex remains integral, and has preserved the traces of its evolution with age. The principal heritage value rests on:
- Its historical value as an “eloquent witness to the industrialization and the modernization of Montreal starting in the 19th Century”
- Its architectural value ; notably, the materials used, its design, its large size, and its “functional composition”
- Its environmental value, as a contribution to the landscape and sustainability of the neighbourhood, as well as its role as the “icon” of the re-development of the former industrial neighbourhood
- Its value as a record which documents “types of industrial construction”
- Its social value, as a symbol of the collective recognition of the heritage present in Griffintown
After years of disinterest and abandonment, a debate on the future of the complex emerged in the 21st century. The city announced a highway development which would create an intense corridor of public transportation alongside the building, and this awakened local residents. Counter-movements were mobilized, and many local actors combined forces to battle for the protection of the space. In 2009, Héritage Montréal added the New City Gas Co. to its list of “most endangered iconic buildings”. After a public consultation in 2010 which allowed public dissatisfaction to be heard, a small portion of the complex was “rehabilitated” in 2012 by private interests in a well-documented and highly anticipated project to create a large capacity music venue. The project reflects the ambitions of many who would like to increasingly develop the sector; and its success would be another large factor in the area’s revitalisation. Anchored in cultural awareness, this space now combines multiple well-suited functions; including, artists residencies, large spaces for events and experimental artistic pursuits, and the “rehabilitated” music venue. At one time, one could view shows there which lit up the streets, the walls and some infrastructure (such as the railway), in echo of its former life.
What it looks like today
“Urban chic built from industrial architecture… [Is] a good way to describe the décor at the New City Gas”… “The re-design tried to keep the soul of the old building …it is at the same time very refined and very raw”. What can we take from the atmosphere of the complex after its partial rehabilitation? Many questions might be considered, among them:
- What is left of the “particularly rich spatial experience, created by multiple spaces, each with a unique ambiance” cited in the heritage evaluation? Aside from attendees of the events which take place there, are a wide range of users able to take consciousness of the space?
- Does the use of public lighting as a base concept for the re-design permit a proper understanding of the documentary and historical value present?
- The cultural functions, focused strongly on entertainment, are they appropriate uses, as well as easily appropriable by the locals? In what way were neighbouring residents considered in its re-use?
Successful partial rehabilitation or facadism? Development or stagnation? Appropriation or elitism? What do you think? We’re waiting to hear your thoughts on the matter starting on August 21st at our Launch Party Located in this fascinating space!
For further reading :
- Site officiel de la New City Gas
- Ville de Montréal. Énoncé de valeur patrimonial : Site de la New City Gas Company of Montreal. Montréal, 2010. 7 p.
- MARCHAL, Mathias, “L’OCPM écorche la ville à propos de Griffintown”, dans Le journal métro, 30 avril 2012
- HÉRITAGE MONTRÉAL, “La New City Gas”, dans Les sites emblématiques menacés
- GUTHRIE, Jennifer, “La New City Gas : Un pan de l’histoire en suspens”, dans Le journal métro, 5 juillet 2010
- “Héritage Montréal salue la renaissance d’un site patrimonial de Griffintown”, dans Newswire, 3 mai 2012
- “New City Gas. Un lieu aussi unique que Griffintown”, dans Découvrez le Sud Ouest, le 6 janvier 2015