QC’s stones tell city’s history, in English and French

Photo: Annabelle Blais

Among the best ways to learn about a city’s history is through its architecture. When you’re walking in the street, look up, pay attention: the city’s stones are talking to you.In case you don’t speak the stones’ language, you might need an interpreter.  Enter Jacques Loiselle, a guide for Tour Voir Quebec and a specialist in the city’s anglophone architectural heritage.  At every street corner, says Loiselle, there are traces of the English presence in Quebec’s history. “This is not a secret, a lot of people already know that.”In honour of the 400th anniversary of Quebec City, L’Actualité has published a photo essay on its website entitled Old Quebec City: British Heritage? Twenty pictures and comments by Rock Côté make an argument for how little of the French architecture of the French Regime is left today and how the British have fundamentally changed the face of Quebec City.According to Loiselle, however, Côté’s piece tends to exaggerate. “When the British came, they didn’t try to impose their style. The truth is that after 40,000 cannonballs were dropped on the city during the war of 1759, Quebec was destroyed.”  The English rebuilt most of the houses the way they had been.The primary evolution occurred in the mid-19th century. The French used to build their houses with rough stones. But in the 19th century, the dressed stones became less expensive, so the English started to build their houses with that type of stone. And the old French houses built with irregularly shaped stones were not trendy anymore.This caused a rash of renovations in which homeowners updated their rough-stone houses by covering them in mortar, thereby imitating dressed stones. Well-preserved examples of that kind of house, according to Loiselle, can be seen on Rue St-Louis at the intersection of Parloire.“I think the journalist from l’Actualité was fooled by those kinds of imitations and concluded a bit fast that many houses were British-built.”In addition, many of the city’s structures were originally French but were added to by the English, who built new levels on top of existing homes. “They may seem British, but they’re actually a mix of both,” said  Loiselle.Sometimes, clues about a building’s origins can be misleading. Château Frontenac is a good example.Despite its name, it is neither a castle, nor did it ever belong to Frontenac, the governor of Nouvelle-France from 1672 to 1692.“Sometimes tourists get confused by that, but I just explain to them that the ‘castle architecture style’ was a trend at the end of the 19th century,” said Loiselle. The Drill Hall and the Railway Station are other examples of that trend. Although that style was inspired by the castles of the Loire Valley in France, most of the architects that participated in the trend were anglophones.  “The architecture of Quebec City is very complex; there are many periods and transitions. It’s not French, it’s not English ... it’s both of them,” said Loiselle.Neither English, nor French, but a mix of both ... these stones truly are Quebecers.For a guided tour of Quebec City’s architecture, visit www.toursvoirquebec.com/en/index.html.And for a tour of city’s British heritage, take a look at the Morrin Centre’s Voxtours at www.morrin.org/pages/home.php.