Canadian architect-engineer Ernest Cormier made his mark, starting in the 1920s, with a series of grandiose public buildings and other notable works that today enjoy landmark, heritage or culturally significant status. Among standout projects he was responsible for, or on which he worked with partners, are the main campus complex of the University of Montreal, the Supreme Court of Canada building in Ottawa, the Quebec Court of Appeal in Montreal, the exterior doors of the United Nations headquarters in New York and the Art Deco house that former prime minister Pierre Trudeau lived in after his retirement from politics.
But there is a less imposing yet nonetheless distinctive work of Cormier’s: the studio he built and lived in for a time on Montreal’s St. Urbain Street in the Milton Park neighbourhood not far from McGill University and the Golden Square Mile.
Modelled after Parisian artists’ studios of the day, Studio Ernest-Cormier is notable for its large open space, three-storey-high ceiling, huge skylight and window at the front. It was built in 1921-22 on a lot next door to the Ecole des beaux-arts, also a Cormier project, and became a gathering place for some of Quebec’s leading artists, artisans and architects of the era.
Cormier’s practice “reflects his synthesis of diverse influences, his role as an agent of cultural transfer, and his remarkable degree of savoir-faire in everything he undertook,” author Aliki Economides states in the résumé of her 2015 Harvard University PhD dissertation on Mr. Cormier.
After Mr. Cormier – who lived from 1885 to 1980 – moved out of the studio in 1935, it became an artists’ workplace and living quarters and ended up in the hands of the Quebec government. Its status as a heritage site and its role going forward, however, have been at the centre of a controversial series of transactions and events that highlight the sometimes unpredictable and seemingly improvised nature of heritage conservation in the city and province.
Three years ago, the Quebec government’s infrastructure management agency – Société québécoise des infrastructures – put Studio Ernest-Cormier up for sale. A “For Sale” sign was slapped on the front, but no news release was issued. There were no discussions with city officials about the sale and what it might imply and no explanation given for why the agency needed to sell the studio, according to media reports.
“We find it regrettable that the sale of this building was done on the sly, despite the province-wide recognition of the heritage value of the property,” heritage defence group Action patrimoine said in a statement at the time.
SQI spokesman Martin Roy said the decision to sell the studio was made because it was not suitable for use by the provincial government. The Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications, which oversees heritage matters, knew of the planned sale and the City of Montreal was informed as well, he said. In addition, the sale was officially announced and ads were placed in several newspapers and on social media, said Mr. Roy.
A campaign was mounted by a separate group intent on not only saving the site, but also reviving its earlier incarnation as a centre for artists and exhibition space. Founded by graphic artist Mélissa Pilon, the entity – Société pour la sauvegarde du studio Ernest-Cormier – expressed concerns that a private sale based only on the highest bid might result in the studio’s alteration or its becoming inaccessible to the public.
Helping allay fears, the provincial government announced its intention to classify the building as a heritage site, thus placing strict constraints on any interior or exterior modifications.
There were six bids in all, ranging from a symbolic $1 from Ms. Pilon’s group to $954,000 from businessman Luc Lachapelle. The offer from Mr. Lachapelle – head of construction, aggregates and asphalt company Groupe BauVal Inc. – prevailed.
Mr. Lachapelle vowed he would respect the architectural integrity of the studio and open the space to the public by staging exhibitions, but he also made it clear he intended to live there.
Officials at city hall in the borough where the studio is located, Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, were not amused. The borough notified Mr. Lachapelle that he was unlawfully occupying the building because it is not zoned residential.
Mr. Lachapelle stayed put and – this past summer – the borough instructed the City of Montreal’s legal department to seek an injunction in Quebec Superior Court against his continued occupancy of the premises.
Mr. Lachapelle and the borough both declined to discuss the case because it is now in court.
In a brief interview, Mr. Lachapelle said he “fell in love with the place” and wants to make sure the site is well maintained. “I’m like the keeper of the fort. We take care of it.”
He has held exhibitions of work by local artists and architects.
Ms. Pilon’s group continues to closely monitor the course of events since the sale as well as the court case. “We welcome the decision by the City of Montreal to take concrete action so as to ensure the zoning of Studio Cormier is respected by its owner, Mr. Lachapelle,” Ms. Pilon said in an e-mail. “An artists’ residence is not a place that one occupies in the same fashion as a single-family residence; it is a workplace for the artist that is essentially centred on research and creation.”
Josette Michaud and her partner, Pierre Beaupré, of the Montreal firm Beaupré Michaud & Associés, Architectes, were among the six bidders for Studio Ernest-Cormier, with a $464,000 offer. They wanted to do something similar to what Mr. Lachapelle is doing and she says the borough’s hardline approach to Mr. Lachapelle’s stewardship of the site – which includes an adjoining garden – is alarming.
“I am absolutely astonished by the borough’s attitude,” she said. The building’s history is not only that of a centre for artistic creation, but also of a living space, she added. That legacy should continue and Mr. Lachapelle is making every effort to ensure it is done correctly, Ms. Michaud said.
Citing the 2015 11th-hour rescue of another historic building – the 1915 Beaux-Arts style Bibliothèque Saint-Sulpice on St. Denis Street – that was threatened with being sold to private interests, Action patrimoine has called for more transparency from the provincial government, and better co-ordination among the different government levels and heritage-preservation players, in developments affecting buildings of historic and cultural significance.
Just before the provincial election earlier this month, Heritage Montreal policy director Dinu Bumbaru also voiced his association’s concern over Quebec’s apparently haphazard approach to the fate of heritage properties.
In the particular case of the Cormier studio, Action patrimoine says it is relieved that Quebec saw fit to protect it under a heritage classification.