A Beaver Tale

PROJECT RESTORATION OF THE BEAVER LAKE CHALET, MOUNT ROYAL PARK, MONTREAL, QUEBEC

ARCHITECT RAL PAUL ARCHITECT AND PIERINA SAIA ARCHITECT

ORIGINAL ARCHITECTS HAZEN SISE AND GUY DESBARATS

TEXT SUSAN BRONSON

PHOTOS FRDRIC SAIA

Without question an early Canadian masterpiece of modern architecture, this glass pavilion–with its distinctive silhouette and colourful murals, was designed by architects Hazen Sise and Guy Desbarats not long before they founded–with fiveothers–the architectural co-operative known as ARCOP. A preliminary sketch was featured in the very first issue of The Canadian Architect in December 1955, and the completed building was covered by the same magazine exactly three years later. In 1957, the RAIC Journal identified the pavilion as one of several park structures built by the City of Montreal in an era when “beauty for recreation” was the motto for the city’s parks department and “leisure in the age of automation” was a priority for municipalities across North America.

The Beaver Lake Pavilion stood apart from Montreal’s other new park structures of the day because of its innovative and resolutely modern architectural expression and sensitive relationship to its landscape. Nestled into a wooded knoll overlooking Beaver Lake on the mountain’s west side, it was designed as a place from which to see and be seen. The two-storey glazed structure, topped by a prismatic roof and surrounded by balconies on three sides, commanded extraordinary views across the skating rink (a large pond graced by ducks and paddle boats in the spring, summer and fall) to the ski and toboggan hill (a favourite spot for picnics, children’s activities and relaxing in the sun for the rest of the year). From that slope, the pavilion was a memorable landmark for walkers, runners and skiers on Olmsted Road, which meanders up the mountain to the summit.

The building’s interior arrangement and furnishings were functional and economical, yet tasteful and innovative. The abundantly lit areas at the front housed a spacious “dining hall” with a lofty ceiling on the upper level and a changing area for skaters featuring a freestanding, flueless metal fireplace downstairs. The two levels were connected by an open stair. Services, such as the kitchen upstairs and washrooms on the lower level, were situated towards the rear in a low, flat-roofed block clad in local fieldstone that was built right into the slope.

However, like many buildings of its day, the Beaver Lake Pavilion did not age gracefully, and it wasn’t long before its architectural integrity was compromised. Deterioration was accelerated by intensive use due to the popularity of the skating rink and ski hill in winter, insensitive interventions in response to changing needs, and insufficient maintenance arising from other municipal priorities.

By 2003, the pavilion was in such a deplorable state of disrepair that many felt it should be demolished. Fortunately, however, the City of Montreal, with encouragement from heritage groups DoCoMoMo Qubec, Les Amis de la montagne and Heritage Montreal, acknowledged that the building could not only be restored to its original architectural stature but rejuvenated to play a vital role as a key component of the mountain’s cultural and natural heritage.

Architects Pierina Saia and Ral Paul were commissioned to restore and renovate the building in 2003. Like the original design and construction, this process took three years. Whereas the original building cost $316,000, its refurbishment involved an investment of $1.89 million.

The work, which sought to respectfully return the building to its status as a Modernist landmark while bringing it up to date in terms of code requirements and sustainability concerns, began with comprehensive research. The architects reviewed hundreds of drawings, photographs, articles and studies. They also carried out investigations of the building fabric, such as scraping painted surfaces to determine original colours and removing added materials and partitions. Finally, they worked with individuals involved in the original construction, such as Claude Vermette, the artist responsible for the ceramic murals.

The construction work was executed with the same respect for the original design intent and materials. The concrete structure, with its exposed rebars, patchy repairs and turquoise paint, was repaired and refinished to its original texture and pale tones. New copper flashing replaced the oversized metal trim that edged the concrete roof, allowing its impressively thin 4-1/2″ profile to be legible once again. The curtain wall was replaced, following the original divisions and using the same custom-designed aluminum-clad profile for the structural members, but integrating energy-efficient glazing and operable windows. To meet public security requirements, subtle additions were made to the steel railings of the balconies, stairs and ramp.

But the most notable change to the pavilion’s exterior was the integration of five new murals composed of metal panels in fiery tones ranging from red to yellow. Artist Claude Vermette worked with the architects to create more contemporary and durable versions of his 1958 murals, which had not withstood the weather. The result is a powerful symbiosis of art and architecture that enhances the building’s relationship with its surroundings, especially at night when it is carefully lit, becoming a colourful stage set in the landscape.

Inside, the pavilion’s clear, functional organization was restored by removing added partitions and materials, repairing original floor and wall surfaces, and installing innovative signage. On the upper level, the suspended wooden slats that highlight the ceiling were refinished, and contemporary light fixtures replaced the fluorescent tubes. The wooden panels that clad the columns and the handmade English ceramic tiles that fronted the snack bar were restored. New tables and chairs, up-to-date versions of the original furnishings, embellish the cafeteria. Downstairs, the freestanding fireplace–which, for safety reasons, could not be made functional again–remains a focal point as both a work of modern art and a source of radiant heat. The metal lockers were replaced by wood benches where skaters put on their skates and store their boots, and where spectators sit and enjoy the view.

Since its completion, the rejuvenated Beaver Lake Pavilion has been lauded by both heritage enthusiasts and the architectural community as an exemplary demonstration of respectful conservation of Modernism. Save Montreal showed its appreciation of the project with an Orange Prize in December 2006 and the Ordre des architectes du Qubec granted an Award of Excellence to the architects and the City of Montreal in November 2007.

But the true test of civic architecture is whether it is appreciated by the public and how it functions at peak capacity. There is no question that the pavilion has once again become a favourite venue for Montrealers. And while busier than ever on winter weekends when the skating rink and tobogganing hill are in full swing, it accommodates its multiple user groups well.

Over the past few months, the final step in restoring the design intent of the Beaver Lake Pavilion has been undertaken. The City-operated snack bar on the upper level, criticized since the 1950s for its limited menu of unsavoury offerings, has been taken over by a private entrepreneur who offers healthy snacks and lunches that can be enjoyed in the cafeteria, which now occupies only half of the upper level. The other half of the space is occupied by an upscale bistro serving full meals and alcoholic beverages, and is managed by the same entrepreneur behind the cafeteria. The interior modifications necessitated by this coexistence of dining room and cafeteria were designed by Lemay Associs. They aim to make the most of the pavilion in Montreal’s m
ountain landscape by attracting patrons not only in the evenings but all year round.CA

Susan Bronson is a Montreal architect and heritage consultant. In 1997, she prepared a report on the commemoration of Canada’s built heritage of the Modern era for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. She is currently working on integrating Modern heritage conservation concerns into Parks Canada’s “Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada.”

CLIENT DIRECTION DES IMMEUBLES/VILLE DE MONTRAL

ARCHITECT TEAM RAL PAUL (PROJECT MANAGER), PIERINA SAIA (DESIGN ARCHITECT), JRMIA GENDRON, HLNE FORTIN, DIONISIOS PSYCHAS

STRUCTURAL SAIA DESLAURIERS KADANOFF LECONTE BRISEBOIS BLAIS

MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL CARON BEAUDOIN ET ASSOCIS

ARTWORK CLAUDE VERMETTE

SIGNAGE FRDRIC SAIA

CONTRACTOR CONSTRUCTION LUC GENDRON INC. (JEAN-LOUIS MICHAUD)

AREA 980

BUDGET $1.89 M

COMPLETION JANUARY 2006

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