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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 24

Second Empire Style in Canadian Architecture

by Christina Cameron and Janet Wright

Quebec Houses

In Quebec the Second Empire style made a considerable impact although the high proportion of domestic buildings with Second Empire influence as indicated in the Canadian Inventory of Historic Building printouts is misleading. In order to trace the influence to its most vernacular form, the criteria of selection remain so broad that these printouts include many simple dwellings whose only reference to Second Empire sources is the mansard roof.

The revival of the mansard roof in Quebec in the 19th century is a curious phenomenon, one that is subject to varying interpretations. The mansard roof was well known in New France in the 17th and early 18th centuries; it had been used on grand public buildings like Frontenac's Château Saint-Louis and the Intendant's Palace as well as on simpler domestic structures. It disappeared from building practice in New France early in the 18th century and only reappeared in the third quarter of the 19th century.

The interpretation of the Second Empire style in Quebec depended on traditional building methods and materials already well established in the province. The purest examples, as previously noted, were concentrated in the major cities, especially in Montreal and Quebec. Whether for the mansions of the wealthy (Fig. 99) or for the multitude of terraces built at this time (Figs. 100-101), the skillful and varied use of stone masonry puts the stamp of Quebec on these houses. Nevertheless, brick masonry, being mere economical than stone, was not excluded from row housing in less affluent quarters (Fig. 102).

These four examples, (Figs. 99-102), demonstrate a traditional Quebec feature that survived in the Second Empire style, namely the high basement wall and consequent raised ground storey. The elevated basement probably evolved in domestic architecture in Quebec as a result of heavy snow accumulations. Unlike examples in other provinces, the basement has in fact become a full living storey.

One of the features of the Second Empire style that apparently appealed to Quebec builders is the tower. Usually placed symmetrically in the main façade, it projects outward from the wall surface. At the same time, it is unusually tall and not well integrated into the composition; standing high above the roofline, it tends to create a rather elongated effect on the general massing (Figs. 103-105). Unlike examples in Ontario, where one finds a series of projections and recessions, the tower in the Quebec version is often the only interruption of the roof plane.

While high-style examples are rare in Quebec, the vernacular use of the mansard is a pervasive and enduring feature. It is applied to the typical Quebec rural house, one storey high, with the mansard replacing the traditional gable roof. A vestige of the earlier form may perhaps be found in the upper slope of the mansard roof which continues to have a marked pitch. Situated along the Saint Lawrence River, especially the Beaupré coast and the Island of Orleans, these wooden houses can appear with either the two-sided (Fig. 106) or four-sided mansard (Fig. 107). The influence even reached the so-called artisans' houses where the workshops are located on the ground level and the residential quarters above (Fig. 108).

Other more specific regional characteristics have emerged through the data of the Canadian Inventory of Historic Building. In the Eastern Townships, for example, one finds imposing two storey brick residences, often with many details from the Second Empire repertoire, that are atypical in the Quebec context and akin to urban examples in Ontario (Fig. 109). On a different scale, the celebrated woodworking tradition of Saint-Jean-Port-Jeli affects domestic buildings in this region, creating a series of richly decorated houses with an interplay of semicircular motifs (Fig. 110).

Although the pure forms of Second Empire did have an impact on the urban areas of Quebec, builders in rural Quebec frequently adopted only the most practical element of this style — the mansard roof. It was probably the practical advantage, and not the symbolic relationship to the mansard roof of the early French colony, that led to its frequent use in otherwise traditional Quebec houses.

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