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At old churches, city halls and other buildings slated for demolition, the province’s definitions of what’s ‘heritage’ and what isn’t are being put to the test

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In Quebec City, demolition work on the Saint-Coeur-de-Marie church has raised contentious questions about heritage preservation in the province.Francis Vachon/The Globe and Mail

Quebec’s famous old towns like Montreal’s Vieux Port and the capital’s fortified city present an image of a province on top of heritage preservation. But some heritage experts and historians question if those landmark neighbourhoods conceal holes in the province’s system of heritage protection.

For decades, a moribund economy and languishing property values acted as a heritage safeguard in Quebec. Developers were rarely interested in buying and bulldozing old property to build new. A robust economy in the past several years has unleashed the bulldozer and wrecking ball on old buildings at an accelerating pace. Every few weeks, some new piece of Quebec’s past is in the news for imminent or under way demolition.

“Now that the economy is going well, we are facing a wave of destruction to build new because there’s a vision that new is beautiful,” said Alex Tremblay-Lamarche, the head of Quebec City’s historical society.

No official statistics exist tracking the demolition of heritage sites – a term that is both a concept and a government classification with widely varying definitions. In a 2018 book, engineer Yves Lacourcière estimated 33 per cent of Quebec heritage buildings had disappeared since the 1970s.

Just in the past month, workers began dismantling a Quebec City church considered a unique example of Romano-Byzantine design. A 120-year-old city hall in Compton, Que., was razed. An apartment building in Montreal’s Plateau district considered a prime example of a Montreal greystone with arches and sculptured stone is under demolition. Last winter saw a succession of buildings from different eras and styles teeter and fall, from a 114-year old neo-Italian inn to a 200-year-old farmhouse in Chambly that was the home of René Boileau, one of the architects of the 1837-38 rebellions, to a 300-year-old French regime farmhouse in Laval.

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There has been a public outcry against the demolition of Maison Boileau, a farmhouse in Chambly, Que., built in 1820. It was home to a notary who took part in the Lower Canada rebellions of 1837-38.Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

Often one level of government or another declared the properties heritage sites, but with uninterested or underfinanced owners and no public money, they have fallen apart anyway.

The church under demolition in Quebec City sits near the crossroads of where modern buildings begin to encroach on the 150-year-old legislature, 300-year-old stone apartments and the famous ramparts – and also where the preservation of architectural heritage confronts financial reality.

As a unique example of Romano-Byzantine design executed at the tail end of the First World War, Saint-Coeur-de-Marie church, formerly known as L’Église des Nobles, is not even among the 10 oldest churches in the city. It is a relic from a more modern time, a piece combining European and American influences.

It is also an artifact of war. Steel rationing necessitated the use of Catalan-inspired self-supporting Guastavino tile ceilings for its two immense 14-metre interior domes. Constructed by the Guastavino Tile Co. of New York, the ceiling echoed a style familiar from Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall and the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.

“It’s not the oldest church in Quebec but it is absolutely unique and distinct in Quebec,” Mr. Tremblay-Lamarche said. “It was built on one of the city’s great prestige arteries, once considered the Champs-Elysées of Quebec, that has suffered one hit after another in recent years.”

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Alex Tremblay-Lamarche, the head of Quebec City’s historical society, says Saint-Coeur-de-Marie isn't one of Quebec's oldest churches, but 'it is absolutely unique and distinct in Quebec.'Francis Vachon/The Globe and Mail

Louis Lessard, a property developer who owns the church, has fought for a decade with the city to tear down the church and build a condominium tower. They rejected all nine of his plans. He is suing.

Ironically, city workers inadvertently started the demolition job for him last winter when they flooded the church while working nearby.

A month ago a judge issued an emergency demolition order. Mr. Lessard’s crew set up a concrete barricade and started dismantling the church spire. “People in Quebec City are calling the barrier the Wall of Shame,” Mr. Lessard said.

Mr. Lessard said the church illustrates how often neither public nor private money follow professed desire for heritage preservation.

The Catholic Church decommissioned the church as a place of worship nearly 30 years ago and it has mostly sat empty since. Long before Mr. Lessard’s real estate development ambitions, other plans emerged. One entrepreneur wanted to turn the church into a concert hall. He didn’t have the $30-million Mr. Lessard estimates would be required to restore and renovate the church.

“Some people say now they love it. Nobody loves it. Nobody wants to put money into it. Without money, there is no conservation,” Mr. Lessard said. “Historians are great, I love them. They are always the first in line to express their love for a building, but they don’t put a cent into them. The city doesn’t want to put in money. The province doesn’t want to put in money. That building needs to be demolished.”

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Saint-Coeur-de-Marie has sat mostly empty since the Catholic Church decommissioned it as a place of worship nearly 30 years ago.Francis Vachon/The Globe and Mail

Experts agree Quebec’s booming economy of the past five years has put additional pressure to redevelop real estate, but Luc Noppen, a professor of urban studies at the University of Quebec at Montreal, says other factors are also at play.

Medium and large cities such as Quebec City and Montreal are trying to densify to maximize tax revenue and slow sprawl and combat climate change. Established residents often resist densification efforts and the potential destruction of heritage adds another point of conflict, Prof. Noppen said. “The status quo will be upset, but there are also issues of equality. Will we leave Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood intact in the name of heritage but bulldoze [poorer] Point Saint Charles?” he said.

The definition of heritage has expanded and is no longer a debate for only experts. “In the 1960s, 70s, 80s, even into the 90s, we had a very narrow idea of heritage. It had to be a building. It had to have high artistic value, and be very old,” he said. “We’ve expanded it, and now there is a soupçon of heritage afforded to all kinds of buildings people find interesting. Developers are running straight into it.”

The professor pointed to the Guaranteed Pure Milk Bottle in downtown Montreal and immense freeway-side Orange Julep dome as two items the public would not have seen as heritage 40 years ago. Citizens would fight for them now, if they were threatened.

“Heritage is not concrete fact, it is a representation of public opinion,” he said. “There is a lot of impression. There is rumour. There is the bad image of real estate promoters. All we can do is inform them what is special about their church. Then they have to decide. There’s no magic recipe.”

Quebec has solid heritage protection laws but they are subject to the interests of owners, the availability of cash and political whim. “From one election to another, the level of protection comes and goes,” Prof Noppen said. “Meanwhile, the body of heritage only continues to grow and we will see more and more controversy.”

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A heritage home, built in 1904, stands partly demolished on Esplanade Avenue in Montreal. Demolition began after the partial collapse of the building, after being condemned for decades.Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

The money Quebec spends on heritage is difficult to tally. While the province has about $45-million dedicated to heritage restoration subsidies, about half of which go to religious sites, it spends hundreds of millions more in a patchwork of renovation programs, public works projects and maintaining its own vast collection of heritage buildings. It just spent $60-million overhauling the entrance to the National Assembly.

Cities in Quebec have a last-resort power to expropriate heritage properties that fall into disrepair. However, civic politicians are loath to take that step and assume the same costs of ownership and restoration that private owners have avoided. Every municipality has small subsidy programs but also spends large amounts on particular projects. Montreal City Hall just launched the $43-million first phase of an estimated $144-million restoration.

“It’s one thing to have tools, it’s another to have budgets,” said Émilie Thuillier, the borough mayor who is in charge of heritage at Montreal City Council. “Municipalities can’t own every heritage building out there. And we have financial assistance programs but it’s not enough. It’s never enough.”

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