Capitol Punishment? Hardly

By Jason Menard

You don’t know what it’s got until it’s gone. The old adage rings true, and it’s all the more evident when long-standing representations of London’s past are scheduled to be torn down.

However, don’t blame the imminent destruction of the Capitol Theatre downtown on progress – blame it on lack of interest from Londoners at large. Heritage buildings are great to celebrate, but they must be living ties to a vibrant past – not hollow reminders of days gone by.

I have the same issue with Heritage buildings that I do with dried flowers. Both are beautiful and vibrant when alive – but when dried they become withered and gutted shells of their former glory.

Eventually enough is enough. There’s no point in simply preserving buildings for nostalgia’s sake. And there’s certainly no doubt that there’s been ample time for someone to step up and make something of the old theatre – its “Opening Soon” marquee has been around so long, it’s become a joke to look at.

The sad fact of the matter is that interest is just not there. No one is willing to step forward and do something to preserve the building. And we have to face facts that if public will is not there, then we have to let it go.

While the building may fall, the memories will live on in those who ever went to the theatre. From nights out with friends, to movies only partly seen because of “extracurricular activities” many Londoners will cherish those memories and hold them close to their heart. Walking past such a decrepit building only devalues those remembrances by framing them on a stage that casts the memories in shadow.

There are other ways of remembering a building. I personally own a wonderful book that examines the photographic history of Montreal. What’s equally interesting as what’s remained the same is what’s changed. One can chart the progress and development of a city through its architecture.

Now, while a parking lot may not be the fitting epitaph for the Capitol theatre, perhaps it’s a harbinger of things to come. Since no one appears to be willing to make the old building a living part of the downtown’s future, at least it will no longer be a roadblock on the way to future success and prosperity.

That’s not to say that creative things can’t be done to retain those links to our past. One has to look no further than the remnants of the Talbot Block and how they were incorporated into the façade of the John Labatt Centre. Other examples are found in the recasting of a Queen St. church into the offices of a Internet consulting company or the turning of the barracks and the Banting home into living museums.

In the end, the theatre will prove to be as transitory as the films it once showed, simply due to the fact that no one was willing to step up and invest in revitalizing it. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. The one thing about the past is that you can never recapture it. Forcing it to stay against its will only leads to resentment and neglect amongst those whose future dreams are stymied by an overzealous grasp on the past.

The other issue is that there is only a limited amount of money available in the pot to be shared. We can’t expect to be everything to everyone, so we have to accept that some things will fall by the wayside. We need to identify our key buildings and invest in them, instead of throwing bad money after good, just to keep buildings that the public at large has not shown the requisite interest in maintaining.

Instead of scurrying around, popping out sound bites whenever another Heritage building is on the chopping block, those truly interested in the past need to be far more proactive in preserving these historical ties. It’s not simply about bestowing Heritage designation on buildings, it’s about having the foresight and creativity to ensure that these buildings remain a viable and participatory member of the community. Whether it’s through the creation of museums, maintaining facades for business use, or any number of other applications, simply preserving buildings isn’t enough – revitalizing them must be a priority.

When the Capitol finally does come crumbling down, it will be a fitting death for a once-stately London building. And the Capitol certainly does deserve to be remembered as something more than a down-trodden, boarded-up shell of what it once was.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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