November 5th, 2007

Save Our City’s Kitsch!

Posted in Architecture, Canada, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

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The Orange Julep. Photo by afternoon_sunlight

Montreal has lost one of its more remarkable pieces of kitsch architecture: today, the Canada Motel, a 47-year-old landmark on Taschereau Blvd. on the South Shore, closed its doors for good.

The motel, topped by a giant neon sign, is designed in the style of a typical Quebec farmhouse, and it’s surrounded by old habitant-style cottages containing rooms with themes like “lumberjack” and “garage.” Roxanne Arsenault, an UQÀM student who is writing her master’s thesis on kitsch architecture, has launched a petition to have Longueuil designate the building as an historic structure. She has been joined in her fight by Heritage Montreal and even La Presse offered its support: “Sauvons le motel Canada!” cried a recent headline.

Montreal has a wealth of kitschy commercial architecture from the 1950s and 60s, but much of it is in danger. Few of these kétaine buildings are protected from demolition, including many motels, old fast-food restaurants, advertising structures like the Guaranteed Milk Bottle and even well-known landmarks like the Orange Julep on Decarie. Ben’s, an example of kitsch par excellence, will soon be demolished — or, at best, gutted — for a new condo or office tower.

Last August, Radio-Canada ran a documentary on Montreal’s kitsch architecture and the efforts being made to save it. Roxanne Arsenault makes an appearance, and she counts the Jardin Tiki, a Chinese restaurant on Sherbrooke St. near the Olympic Village, among Montreal’s most endangered kitsch buildings. Other important ones include the Orange Julep and nearby Ruby Foo’s, a Chinese-themed motel and buffet built in the 1960s, when Decarie north of Queen Mary was a popular cruising strip.

Growing up in Calgary, where one of the city’s most enduring icons — the Calgary Tower, an orangey-red observation tower built in 1967 — is a brilliant example of kitsch, I can definitely understand the fascination with and desire to save these buildings. But preserving them is more complicated than it might seem. Unlike other styles of architecture, their appeal rests as much in their spirit as their appearance. Ben’s, without its formica tables, linoleum floor and Poet’s Corner, is little more than a minor example of streamline architecture. The Orange Julep can only function as a fast-food restaurant.

But there are good models of kitsch preservation, like Wildwood, a New Jersey beach town that was a favourite vacation spot for Quebeckers in the 1960s. Blessed with a large collection of motels (including the Quebec Motel and the Montreal Inn) designed in a style known in the United States as “doo wop architecture,” preservation activists in Wildwood have taken to saving old signs, furniture, even toilets. New Jersey has given heritage status to a number of motels, which has released federal preservation dollars. Wildwood business owners have even discovered that kitsch is good for business, as tourists return to Wildwood not only for the beach, but for its retro atmosphere.

Montreal might be well-suited to capitalize on a similar trend. In a review of the city’s kitsch architecture in Canadian Architect magazine, Elsa Lam detected an undercurrent of kitsch in everything from early twentieth-century triplexes to new structures like the multicoloured Palais des congrès.


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5 comments

  1. HanseaticEd says:

    I just returned from Montreal, where I was surprised to discover that Ben’s had closed. It was a bit depressing, as it was such an institution. (If I remember correctly, even the ‘toonie’ was launched there back in the 1990s.)

    Otherwise, the kitsch architecture of Montreal really does say something about the nature of the city. I have given a great deal of thought to the monumental architecture – both old and new – that graces Montreal’s landscape, but I have seldom given any at all to ‘Orange Julep’ on Decarie. Alas, such places have an importance of a very different sort from their more remarkable big siblings.

    Thanks for drawing attention to them.

    November 5th, 2007 at 8:24 am

  2. Lily says:

    I actually got an Orange Julep there once. It was one of the more repulsive things I have ingested in my life, but worth it for the delightful spherical experience.

    November 5th, 2007 at 8:34 pm

  3. Michael Maggard says:

    The toonie was indeed introduced at Ben’s; I had the privilege of being there for it (as guest of one of the waiters) and bought one for my father.

    November 7th, 2007 at 4:05 am

  4. Motel Canada is Montreal Kitsch | Live Mtl says:

    [...] thesis on Quebec’s Culture of Kitsch. Hmmm… still does anyone care? The folks over at Urban Photo might, they wrote an article titled “Save Our Cities [...]

    November 20th, 2007 at 3:50 pm

  5. The Motel Strip of Scarborough | What Place Looks Like From Here says:

    [...] Fans of modernist architecture, Americana, and all that is kitsch might feel a (grounded or imagined) nostalgia upon the sight of the motel’s L-shape and neon signage, perfectly lined identical doors, and balconied second-storey.  But those motels are not just pretty things to look at; they are places where people actually live.  And when local families live in motels, the motels become linked to the area’s social environment, especially through the public schools that the kids temporarily attend.  And like other transient groups, families living in motels have been the target of people’s fear and exclusionary practices. A motel’s balcony and simple signage in Scarborough, Ontario. Photo by: Danielle Scott. [...]

    May 4th, 2012 at 9:21 am

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