MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

Even in Centennial year we couldn’t win ’em all

February 1 1968
MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

Even in Centennial year we couldn’t win ’em all

February 1 1968

Even in Centennial year we couldn’t win ’em all

MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

FEBRUARY, 1968 VOLUME 81 NUMBER 2

WHILE MANY TOWNS and cities across Canada have been able to congratulate themselves over happily completed Centennial projects, the three most conspicuous cities in central Canada would be just as happy not to be reminded of all the things that went wrong with their projects.

In Montreal, one major Centennial project was seriously affected by Expo 67. Predictably, the big fair overshadowed everything else — but also deluded some Centennial-minded citizens into thinking that in this town anything was possible and wishing would make it so. With such psychology, converting the old MontrealCanadian stock exchange into Le Centre Cultural du Vieux Montréal seemed like a great idea for a Centennial project. Its promoters called it a bilingual, bicultural centre of entertainment at all levels, with two theatres equipped for film, all the latest audio-visual equipment, an art gallery, a book and record shop, a pub, a discothèque and a bar. The federal government contributed $100,000, and private donors pledged $59,000. As well, the Centennial Commission contributed $30,000 toward a stage production called Village de Pierre, done in the Czechs’ Laterna Magica style. It was completely rehearsed but never got presented. Two weeks after a spectacular opening (see January Maclean’s) Le Centre, $500,000 in debt and unable to finance the full run of its opening play, closed its massive oak doors. With another three weeks’ work and $250,000 needed for completion, costs were more than double the original estimate. Workmen were owed $43,000 in back pay.

Convinced they could get the necessary backing—such as operating costs from the Quebec government—if they came up with an attractive package, directors Jacques Languirand and Leon Klein had pushed too far too fast. “People say we are always walking on the clouds,” mused Languirand in what must rank as the understatement of the Centennial. “But I don’t think people with their feet on the ground would ever have got this thing going.”

Victor Barnett, a chartered accountant who is working gratis to try

to save the Centre, says the only hope creditors have of getting even part of their money is for the Centre to reopen. But meanwhile, behind the columned façade of the old building, the phones are disconnected and snow has covered the piles of sand left outside by unhappy workmen. Klein is no longer a director, seventeen of the production staff who offered to work for nothing are making ends meet elsewhere and even the exuberant Languirand admits he has “ceased to hope for miracles.”

ELIZABETH GRAY

In Toronto, they have a late entry as a centennial project which almost didn’t make it. It’s the authentically restored St. Lawrence Hall, opened by Governor-General Michener on December 28 (though renovation wasn’t completed until January). The original Centennial project, the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, hasn’t got anywhere, though Mayor William Dennison predicts that it will soon be under construction. The Centre project was envisioned in 1962 as a $25-million, ten-building complex comprising three schools, a market, a plaza, 1,500seat theatre and a building housing museums, art gallery, lecture rooms, restaurant and administrative offices.

Two years later, this grandiose layout was reduced and the cost whittled down to $5,450,000, exclusive of land. The Toronto Arts Foundation was set up to raise $2.3 million and architects were asked for a design. In May, 1965, the city council voted 1110 in favor of the more modest scheme, but the Toronto Arts Foundation gave up on public subscriptions. Nevertheless, Mavor Moore was appointed director, and Philip Givens (then mayor) launched a campaign to raise $1 million. By November $1,700,000 had. been promised by donors at large. But in December, 1966, tenders came in at nearly $3 million over budget.

Meanwhile work on St. Lawrence Hall was progressing and it was promised for July 1, 1967. In March a wall collapsed and delayed things, but on July 1 Mayor Dennison laid the cornerstone and proclaimed the restoration “a Toronto Centennial project.” Fall of ’67 saw Board of

Control favoring the Arts Centre by only one vote and the federal government refusing requests for more money. As Centennial year ended, Torontonians had their almost-finished, considerably-over-budget St. Lawrence Hall but were nowhere near becoming sidewalk superintendents for their multi-million-dollar cultural centre. JOAN WEATHERSEED

In Ottawa, the National Arts Centre claims distinction as the slowest-rising building with the fastest-rising costs. When the project was approved by the cabinet in late 1963 it was touted as Ottawa’s most spectacular Centennial showcase, due to open in time for 1967 celebrations. Cost was estimated around nine million dollars. By mid-1964 the Centre’s cost was up to $12 million but elaborate underground parking and other extras had doubled the total outlay to $18 million. Since then, estimates have gone up a few million at a time to today’s $42 million. And the earliest it can hope to open is mid-1969.

Bemused Ottawans, traditionally slow to complain, are apt to shrug off the whole fiasco with a joke. (Favorite during the interminable excavation period: “Ottawa is the only city that doesn’t know its Arts from a hole in the ground.”)

The Centre certainly sounds worth waiting for. It will contain a 2,300seat Opera House, a 900-seat theatre, and a 300-seat experimental studio theatre; facilities for simultaneous translation into English and French; underground parking for 900 cars; a restaurant and café; and some magnificently avant-garde statuary. It will also cost Ottawa two million dollars a year to keep the place going.

NAC director-general G. Hamilton Southam sees no scandal in the Centre’s more-than-quadrupled costs and delays. “Original estimates,” he says, “were based on very preliminary and incomplete information. No building of this kind had been done in Canada before.” And even present estimates compare well with those for similar projects in the United States, he says.

Southam even insists he can see an unexpected benefit in the delayed opening. “Now we have something to look forward to after the end of Centennial year.” EILEEN TURCOTTE