03 Sep 2008
- Last Updated on 06 February 2013
- Written by Mohammad Al-Asad
1074 Bank Street
The exterior of the Mayfair Theatre faces Bank Street with a three-story brick façade topped by a centrally-located, free-standing curvilinear Spanish Colonial Revival gable. The upper two thirds of the façade constitute a primarily blank, windowless surface with very limited decorative features. These include patterned brickwork and small square artificial cut-stone inlays defining the corners of rectangular brick frames articulating the facade. The building’s lower third opens up along the street level through the theatre’s entry doors as well as the storefront window of a barber shop located to their right. Another store originally flanked the entry doors from the left, but was later incorporated into the theatre.
A large, lit, spear-shaped two-story-high projecting vertical marquee with “MAYFAIR” written on it had been attached to the building façade for decades, but was removed at a later date.
The building’s relatively austere exterior fits in well with the surroundings street-scape. In contrast, the interior, which maintains almost all of its original character, is lavishly decorated in an eclectic manner that heavily incorporates Spanish Colonial Revival architectural features (which also are connected to what are known as the Mission and Mediterranean styles). The Spanish Colonial revival was particularly widespread in California during the 1920s and 1930s, and this connection to the state where Hollywood is located contributed to its popularity for the design of movie theatres. In fact, the Mayfair is considered an example of the “atmospheric cinema” and is the second such cinema to have been constructed in Ottawa. Such atmospheric cinemas are attributed to Austrian-born architect John Eberson (1875-1955), who began designing theatres in the United States in the 1920s. Eberson’s idea was to transport the theatre-goer to a magical environment that belongs to another time and place. Common themes for atmospheric cinemas included Italian gardens, Persian courts, and Spanish patios.
In describing the interior, author Alain Miguelez remarks that it “gave the effect of watching an open-air movie in the middle of a Mediterranean plaza, framed by ornate stone façades under a soft blue sky.” The seating arrangement in the auditorium occupies only one level, with the upper balconies being false ones. These balconies incorporate triple-arched porticoes and Mediterranean-style clay-tile canopies, as well as wrought-iron lamps projecting a medieval feel. In addition, a pair of iron spears placed in front of a backdrop of soft blue stained-glass faux windows articulates each of the balcony arches.
The theatre’s original capacity was 620 seats, but this was brought down to under 500 during the 1980s, when the original chairs were replaced as part of an upgrading project for the auditorium.
The Mayfair Theatre was designed by Ottawa architect John P. MacLaren (b. 1865), who studied at the University of Toronto. His works in Ottawa include the First Church of Christ Scientist and the West Branch Library. The decorative features of the auditorium and the ladies’ bathroom are the work of Belgian-born artist Rene S. DeVos of Toronto. The original owners were F. G. and F. W. Robertson.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau used to frequent the Mayfair Theatre on a regular basis while living in Ottawa.
As a business venture, the theatre has gone through ups and downs since its opening that are connected to the fortunes of both the movie-theatre business and the neighborhood, but it managed to survive as an independent establishment in an environment dominated by chain movie theatres. It is the only surviving movie theatre in Ottawa from the pre-World War II era and is the last remaining operating neighborhood movie theatre in the city.
It was announced in the summer of 2008 that the Mayfair Theatre would close down at the end of the year. This prompted a group of concerned citizens to approach the Ottawa Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee (LACAC) in an effort to protect the building. LACAC accordingly decided that the building is of cultural heritage value and recommended designating it as a heritage property and including it on the City of Ottawa heritage register. The Ottawa City Council voted on the recommended designation and approved it in October. In November 2008, a group of investors signed a lease with the building owner to continue running the theatre. They refurbished the building and re-opened it in early 2009 as a movie theatre that emphasizes experimental rather than commercial films.
Miguelez, Alain. A Theatre Near You: 150 Years of Going to the Show in Ottawa-Gatineau. Manotick, Ontario: Penumbra Press, 2004, pp. 206 – 213.
Schepers, Nancy. “Designation of the Mayfair Theatre, 1074 Bank Street under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act.” Report to the Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee Planning and Environment Committee and Council. Ottawa: City of Ottawa, 2008.