The iconic theatre has been officially listed, and is not protected under the Ontario Heritage Act
The iconic Westdale Theatre is up for sale, and Coun. Aidan Johnson fears a new owner will close or even demolish it if he can’t get the “magic place” a heritage designation in time.
‘People are worried that a new owner will shut down the cinema and seek a demolition.’– Coun. Aidan Johnson
“I’m concerned that the already fast-tracked process council approved won’t be fast enough,” said Johnson. “What I’m investigating now is whether the rules permit an immediate designation in this case.”
Last year, Johnson began the push to protect the cinema under the Ontario Heritage Act, which would see staff complete the necessary inspection by 2018.
Community and cinema
An immediate designation would mean the building could be designated without a formal inspection or analysis, said Johnson.
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“I grew up going to movies at the Westdale cinema,” he said. “It is extremely important.”
‘It is a sacred place and the community regards it as such.’– Coun. Aidan Johnson
The movie house at 1014 King St. W. was put for sale on Dec. 22 and is listed at $1,799,000. It’s been a staple in the Westdale Village neighbourhood of Hamilton for more than 80 years.
“This historic art deco Westdale Theatre is available for the first time in 36 years,” the listing says. It describes the Westdale as “a popular functioning movie theatre” close to restaurants, retail, McMaster University and a future light-rail transit (LRT) line.
The 498-seat theatre opened in 1935, and quickly became a hub for the trendy Westdale neighbourhood.
“Since the early days of Westdale Village,” said Johnson, the theatre “has provided a forum for art and community and contemplation. It is a sacred place and the community regards it as such.”
Cutting family ties
Owned by the Sorokolit family out of Toronto, the theatre has struggled to make ends meet in recent years. In August 2015, Dan Sorokolit inherited the theatre from his late father Peter. The family also owns the Mount Pleasant Theatre in Toronto.
‘It’s nice if it stays a theatre, but it’s up to the person who buys it.’– Dan Sorokolit
As far as protecting the property, Sorokolit says there is really no plan in place.
“There’s no real limitations,” he said. “Whoever wants to buy the property.”
“If the city wants it badly enough they should go out there and keep it preserving, they have the means.”
While the Theatre’s traditional analog projector has been a factor in running the place, Sorokolit said it wasn’t a factor in the decision to sell.
When it comes to selling it to someone who could demolish it, Sorokolit said, “It’s nice if it stays a theatre, but it’s up to the person who buys it.”
Johnson said the Sorokolits have been good to the city of Hamilton.
“I am very grateful to the owners for running the cinema and keeping it open,” he said. “The whole community owes them a debt of gratitude.”
More than just a theatre
“We as a community need to ensure that the next owner respects it,” said Johnson. “Heritage designation is the primary thing that I can do as a councillor.”
But as a member of the community, and as a passionate advocate for the theatre, he’s exploring the options.
He’s reached out to McMaster, pitching the theatre as a potential classroom during the day, and theatre by night.
“I think that the cinema would make a spectacular lecture hall,” he said.
McMaster’s responses so far have been positive, Johnson said, but non-committal. He’s open to numerous options, including a café. But one thing is for sure, “independent movie houses are not big money makers,” he said.
“There needs to be a business plan for the Westdale cinema.”
Keep the magic alive
The community has reacted since the news broke, and Johnson encourages them to continue to raise their voices.
“I’m hopeful that the community rallies behind protecting Westdale as a designated heritage property,” he said.
Constituents have expressed their alarm and concern over the potential loss of the theatre, he said, and what it would mean for the community.
“People are worried that a new owner will shut down the cinema and seek a demolition,” said Johnson.
“The Westdale cinema is a magic place, that’s why it needs to be protected.”