L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
Traditional French-Canadian ( Quebec ) Architecture
[This text was written in 1914 by Percy E. Nobbs. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]
The early settlers of the Province of Quebec brought with them the building traditions of France at a time when Gothic building methods may be said to have just become extinct. Their requirements were for the most part of the simplest character, and stout walls of well-set rubble with wooden casement windows and shutters, steep roofs with a pronounced bellcast, stone gables carried up to skews well above the roof, and stout chimneys were the main characteristics of their work. If this strong house-building has a prototype elsewhere, it is in the cottages and farmhouses of the north coast of France . How soon the French learned to build with logs it is difficult to say. The Swiss of the period had a highly developed wood architecture based on log construction, as had the Scandinavians and the Slavonic peoples. Old France was, however, a stone-building country, though, as in England , 'half-timberwork' in oak was in use in the forest districts. The stud wall lined on the inside and weather-boarded on the outside, which has played so great a part in the colonial architecture of New England and was adopted with modifications by the French in Canada , hails from the south coast of England , where oak was scarce and pine plentiful. Certain it is that the early French settlers soon learned to build walls with logs set horizontally and notched and bonded at the quoins. It is very remarkable, however, that the French settlers in Canada have never achieved a log architecture in the sense in which the Swiss, the Scandinavians and the Slavs have; their efforts at stud and 'balloon' frame construction are to this day intensely unscientific and crude, and amount to nothing more than a jerry-builder's device for making a partition in wood serve the purpose of a stone wall. A handy man as the Quebecer of the back blocks undoubtedly is, and resourceful as a sailor, it is strange how little the practical and aesthetic possibilities of wood construction have appealed to his inventiveness. Except in adhering tenaciously to the bellcast roof of the early Renaissance and exaggerating it into an unsupported covering of the gallery in front of his cottage, he has done little with wood in evolving architectural forms. The older seigniories and forts were little more than glorified cottages and their interest is archaeological only. In the cottages and farmhouses of parts of the province, particularly below Quebec and in the immediate vicinity of Montreal , a very charming type of country architecture was, however, evolved. The walls are usually in rough rubble squared at the corners only, and heavily pointed, almost smothered, in lime mortar. The door is nearly always formally placed in the centre of the front, with one, two or three windows regularly spaced on each side. These are invariably folding casements opening inwards and are divided into small square panes in true French sixteenth and seventeenth-century fashion. The window frames in wood are set flush with the outside of the wall and the joint is covered with a moulding forming a neat architrave. In eighteenth-century cottages very delicate mouldings are often to be met with. The openings in the main walls are nearly always symmetrically arranged and are excellently proportioned. In country work the outer walls are as a rule one storey in height, the main floor being two to four feet above the ground, while in the city of Quebec and the smaller towns three- and even four-storey buildings of this kind are not uncommon. The gable parapets or skews taken up above the roof lines in the older examples are planked on top and shingled or coped in sheet metal. In the larger houses the gable walls carry two chimneys with a parapet wall between them. In ordinary cottages chimneys occurring elsewhere than at the apexes of the gables are rare. The chimneys often have delicately moulded stone copes of a somewhat Gothic character. The gable skew puts are as a rule carried out on heavily moulded corbels to stop the eaves and bellcast when these are of moderate proportions. In the later examples the gable skews are not found, the roof being carried over the gable wallhead - a decided improvement in a roof, however steep, that is designed to withstand snow and ice.
In these later examples the bellcast over the front gallery is often exaggerated to the limit of construction. In the case of some of the log cottages on the Ottawa River this immense bellcast and the eaves are taken all round the house. The roofs of the French-Canadian cottages are usually over 40° in pitch and are broken as a rule by a row of gablets or storm windows with pitched roofs, the main ridge being so high that it gives an unbroken sky-line.
Internally many of these cottages and farmhouses are well finished, the walls and ceilings of the older ones being lined in pine, the lining consisting of wide boards with moulded fillets over the joints. As for the furnishings, these often present an odd mixture of old French taste with primitive ideals. Woven rag matting, often in excellent colouring, and summer-killed skins cover the floors. Chairs, tables, dressers and armoires faintly reminiscent of the Henry IV period and made by the tenant or his ancestors, are of frequent occurrence, and now and then a real old piece from France . A box stove from Three Rivers, if made prior to 1840, is a thing of wonderful durability and beauty; sparingly adorned with crisp anthemions, daintily moulded, refined in form and proportion, what a contrast it presents to its hideous modern successor with its amorphous rotundity exuding burnished monstrosities of Byzantine 'ornament.'
Many a farmhouse on the North Shore road below Quebec can still testify by its appointments that country life in Canada had its amenities in the old days.
No review of the architecture of the Province of Quebec would be complete without some reference to the ecclesiastical buildings of the Roman Church. The relations of the church in Quebec with the church in France have naturally been close and continuous, and so we find a reflection of the French developments of classic architecture evidenced in connection with ecclesiastical buildings in this province and particularly during the eighteenth century. The churches at Pointe aux Trembles , Ste Rose and Ste Geneviève, all in the vicinity of Montreal , plainly show the influence of this tradition. The older parish churches throughout the province have usually some striking quality of design, and in many cases are adorned with charming spires and flèches sheeted in tin. This material, which weathers to a lustrous golden tint and was used for the roofing of all the more substantial buildings before the advent of galvanized iron, gave character to the towns and villages of the province. Perhaps the finest group of buildings for which we have to thank the church in the Province of Quebec is that known as the Hôtel-Dieu - a hospital in Montreal . Extreme simplicity and breadth characterize the group, which is regular and symmetrical though naively unaffected in style. The central chapel is surmounted by a lantern or dome of moderate dimensions, admirable in itself and in the happiest relation to the group that it dominates.
Very different in temper from the work of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century is the more recent achievement in building of the French-Canadian people and their church. Some fatuous efforts at revived Gothic may be noted, and these are sad enough, and if a foreign inspiration must be cited by way of relieving from responsibility the authors of the more recent abominations, the banalities of French architecture under Louis-Philippe may be mentioned. General conditions referred to at the beginning of the chapter must, however, be regarded as the causes for a phase of design that would be called a decadence had it corresponded with a languishing activity, but which must, considering its quantity and exuberance, deserve a less apologetic description.
Even down to 1860 there were built in Montreal by French-speaking builders many dignified residences and city blocks with a distinct neo-Greek tendency, which in virtue of good proportion, reserved and delicate detail, and excellent workmanship were well able to hold their own without any historic style designation. But the second half of the nineteenth century shows a rapid abandonment of all restraint and a culmination of vulgarity in the rankly fertile galvanized-iron excrescences of 1900 which deform both Montreal and Quebec . Since that date the forces of the academic school of Paris have again mustered in some strength, and French-Canadian architecture as such has ceased to be, for the mixed blessing of the bondage of the modern academic school allows but little scope for local traditions, whether sane, worthy and beautiful or merely erratic and untutored.
Source: Percy E. NOBBS, "French Canadian Architecture", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur G. DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and Its Provinces , Vol. XII, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, pp. 667-671.
© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College