A Destination Apart

Unlike its Toronto counterpart, Montreal’s art deco masterpiece still needs a saviour.

Summer, 2012 / No. 28
Photograph by Colin Rose
Colin Rose

A still-operating Ninth Floor, circa 1987, more than a decade after its closing.

It was 1999, but when the elevator opened on the ninth floor of the Montreal Eaton’s store, I was transported to the golden era of ocean liners and white gloves. I sailed down a corridor of marble lined with porthole-shaped display windows, past the elegant phone booths, to the tangerine dining room, with its soaring ceiling and alabaster lamps.

At the end of the millennium, during the final days of Eaton’s, I savoured poire belle Hélène—pears and chocolate—in the restaurant known simply as the Ninth Floor, or le Neuvième. Here, in the architect Jacques Carlu’s 1931 design of modern elegance, customers once experienced an atmosphere untouched by the Great Depression. For seven decades, Montrealers continued to escape the world outside by having lunch or coffee here amid pillars, murals, and fountains.

In 2000, Quebec’s Ministry of Culture and Communications designated the Ninth Floor and its art deco interior a historic monument. But it was too late. Ivanhoé Cambridge, the property manager who bought the building following the collapse of Eaton’s, had already gutted the restaurant’s kitchen. Twelve years later, the beloved dining room remains closed to the public. Heritage Montreal has put it on its list of threatened sites. No one is allowed in. I thought I’d see how close I could get.

In the atrium of the old Eaton’s, now the Complexe Les Ailes mall, I boarded the glass elevator. There were three levels of stores and several more containing offices. No button for the ninth floor.

Le Neuvième had always been a destination apart, a little like Platform 9æ for the Hogwarts Express. “You had to know it was there,” says Sandra Cohen-Rose, the author of the book Northern Deco and the founder of the group Art Deco Montreal. “It was a magical place. The longer it’s closed, the more it deteriorates. I don’t know how bad it is now.”

Cohen-Rose would like to see the Ninth Floor restored and in use, like Carlu’s eponymous restaurant (once known as the Seventh Floor) in Toronto’s one-time Eaton’s store at College Park, but she also knows restoring it would cost millions.

From the glass elevator the shopping centre looked deserted. When I asked at the information desk about visiting the Ninth Floor, the clerk handed me the mall director’s business card.

Outside, I examined the building. I noticed another entrance on University, pushed through a revolving door, and there, to the left, was a bank of old elevators. I stepped in and pressed nine.

The elevator opened onto a marble wall featuring an empty porthole-shaped display window. The satin-finished metal doors were locked. I tried them, no doubt captured by a security camera.

“What do you need? ” asked a man by the elevator. I told him I was looking for the past, for the Ninth Floor of the old Eaton’s, a restaurant reminiscent of a ship’s ballroom, right behind those locked doors.

“I’ve often wondered what was back there,” he said.

There was nothing open on the ninth floor except offices. Back in the lobby I asked the security guard if people ever came looking for the Ninth Floor. “Old people, sometimes,” he said. “They want to go up to the restaurant.”

I envisioned someone passing through Montreal for the first time in decades, hoping to make a special pilgrimage to le Neuvième.

“Did you ever go there? ” I asked the guard. He was young, but might have been taken there as a child by his mom or grandmother, a ritual passed from one generation of Montrealers to the next.

Pas moi. But I see it on my rounds.”

I perked up. “You do rounds up there? Is it still beautiful? ”

He shrugged. “You see it once, you don’t need to see it again.”

The one guy who got inside regularly didn’t even care. I faked nonchalance. “I guess I couldn’t go with you sometime? ”

The guard shook his head. What kind of security would he be if he let me in?

I left two messages for Johanne Marcotte, a director with Ivanhoé Cambridge, asking if I could visit the Ninth Floor.

In the meantime, I looked for other ways to come close to the restaurant’s spirit and the way it called to mind another time. Cohen-Rose told me I’d have to go to the Queen Mary, docked in Long Beach, California, to find anything like it. “It’s terrible the things we’ve lost,” she said.

I tried to think of where I could commune with a lost world over a cup of tea or coffee. If the Jardin du Ritz were still open, at the Ritz-Carlton, or the Tartan Room, at Ogilvy, or even Ben’s delicatessen, I could have gone there. But downtown was now a uniform mass of Second Cup and Java U shops. In a narrow Starbucks, on University, up the street from the old Eaton’s, loud music blared as every single customer stared blankly at a laptop or phone. There was no “there” there.

I remembered the seventh floor Bon Appetit Café, at the Bay, one level up from home furnishings. On a blustery grey lunch hour a few dozen people were sprinkled across the vast room. A red canoe perched on fake beams and paddles hung on the wood-panelled walls. It was not grand or luxurious, but at least it did feel like something from another decade. It conjured the Paddlewheel of my youth, at the Portage Avenue Bay, in Winnipeg.

Two elderly men took their trays to a table. “They have less choice here now,” said one. “No chicken pot pie, no fish.” They ate soup and crackers, and before shuffling out, one had a parfait glass of le dessert du jour, lemon pudding.

Up there, the commotion of the city, the snarled traffic from the student protest march, seemed far away. In the Bon Appetit, people were doing old-fashioned things like reading books and newspapers and eating cubed Jell-O. But even here, change is in the offing, as the Bay plans to renovate its seventh floor cafeteria to give it a more contemporary feel.

I finally reached the elusive Johanne Marcotte. “We’re doing everything we can to preserve the Ninth Floor,” she said, “and this includes not letting people in.” Marcotte was so gracious she managed to sound friendly as she said this. She mentioned that she’d shown the space to potential tenants (something Ivanhoé Cambridge has been saying for years), but was not at liberty to say more. “I don’t mean to rub it in, but it’s always a pleasure for me to go there,” she added.

At least someone was still enjoying le Neuvième.

The Ninth Floor restaurant was once a time machine anyone could visit for the price of a cup of coffee. I’m left with the memory of that poire belle Hélène, served by a stout waitress in a black dress with a crisp white apron. Poached pears and ice cream, embellished with frills of whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I’ve never seen it on a menu anywhere else.

Sarah Gilbert teaches in the English department at Dawson College, in Montreal. Last updated winter, 2017–2018.