Monday, April 21, 2008

An epic mistake

I am not a building inspector, but I was surprised by how good of shape the old Rex/Regent/Epic Theatre on Main Street is in. From what the City of Winnipeg (who have owned this theatre since 1992) has been saying about its interior, I was expecting sunken roof and water-soaked plaster everywhere, but there was very little water damage that I could see, except for one spot above the balcony, where a patch of the ceiling had fallen in.

There were many pigeons on the balcony, which was unspurprising, since the building's owner for the past 16 years, the City of Winnipeg, has neglected to cover the upper windows. Pigeon excrement is a daunting and expensive thing to clean up, but nothing that bothering to affix placards to window frames could not have prevented. (I hope that one winter with an opening on the third floor of the Bell Hotel, another building owned by the City of Winnipeg via Centre Venture Development Corp., won't end up adding cost to future redevelopment of that building--or serve as an excuse to demolish it.)

In March, Councillor Jenny Gerbasi, fresh from fighting tooth and nail to save the First Church of Christ Scientist in her home ward of Fort Rouge, shrugged off the Regent Theatre being removed from the City's Buildings Conservation List, saying "the elements [of the Regent] that were considered of heritage significance were destroyed." Surveying the building from the stage, it was hard to know what in the world she was talking about.

The interior is stunningly ornate, looking largely unchanged from when it opened as the Rex Theatre in 1912, only the second theatre in Canada to be built specifically for showing movies (rather than Vaudeville) . Many of the original, leather upholstered seats were bolted to the hardwood floor. Ornate mouldings ran up the walls and across the vaulted ceiling, the British coat of arms above the stage. Brass railings led up to the balcony, where a very old film projector sat.

Again, I am not a building inspector, but there is no reason to not believe that with any will, the Regent Theatre can be saved and restored. Unfortunately, there exists within the City of Winnipeg and the public revitalization industry, about as much will to preserve Main Street as there was in 1998, or 1968 (in spite of the undeniable historical significance of the neighborhood in general, and the second oldest movie theatre in the country in particular).

If there was any will, "pro-heritage" and "pro-urban" councillors like Ms. Gerbasi--who has held munincipal office for 13 of the 16 years the Regent Theatre has declined under City ownership--would not simply shrug off its impending demise.

Of course, there is also no apparent recognition of the several recent, privately-led improvements on Main Street, or how it is only by the existance of modest old buildings that this true re-vitalization is possible. The Main Street Strip has a sushi restaurant; Waterfront Drive does not.

It would be of some comfort to know that we will one day learn from this tragically brain-dead attempt at urban renewal, but even though the Civic Centre on Main is regarded almost unanimously as a failed experiment, and Portage Place is not far behind, we still obviously believe that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is somehow not insanity.


Under the peeling Art Deco-ish exterior of the Regent, added in the late 1930s, does the original facade that bore some resemblance to the famed Chicago Theatre still exist? I suppose if we ever find out, it won't be until after the wrecking ball begins to swing against it.
(photo of Chicago Theatre by Christian Cassidy,


Related: 'Revitalization by obliteration', Uptown Magzine


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