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Architecture of a working-class neighbourhood
The Saint-Jean district is the oldest part of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood. But its oldest, French-style buildings date back no further than the mid-19th century—and they are few and far between. Aside from the more stylish buildings along Rue Saint-Jean, the architecture of adjacent streets reveals the history of a modest part of the city, its diversity hidden behind what at first appears to be blanket conformity.
Since the days of New France homes in the Saint-Jean district had been modest compared to those built inside the city walls and down by the port. Throughout the 19th century this part of town continued to attract low wage earners. Streets north of Rue Saint-Jean have since kept the same architectural style: a string of adjoining, similarly sized buildings most often made from brick winds its way along streets divided at right angles, with only the odd spectacular glimpse of the Laurentians or Lower Town interrupting the sober cityscape. But behind this uniformity lies a history that can be broken down into several phases.
The oldest homes in the district were built after the fire of 1845, which burned down everything in its path. These homes are east of Rue Sainte-Geneviève, in an area spared by the great fire of 1881. Although many had their original wood facing replaced by brick and were made one storey higher, some retained their original features.
The old home at 738–740 Rue Richelieu still has only one storey and a gable roof with dormer windows, just as in days gone by. It has also kept the horizontal wooden cladding typical of its time. The house next door, No. 744–746, also carries on the New France style. It is more imposing with its two stories and immediately complied with the new municipal bylaws to reduce the risk of fire, with its stone cladding and fire walls. Its carriage entrance led to the stable in the rear courtyard.
On the other side of the street the mansard roof at No. 741–745 is covered in galvanized tin, using a technique that dates back to the mid-18th century.
Following the disaster of 1881 the Saint-Jean district became a hive of activity and its population soared. Small businesses and skilled artisans, instead of families themselves, built new homes in brick rather than wood. West of Rue Sainte-Geneviève almost all homes now had two or three floors, and the Second Empire style grew more popular. Mansard roofs provided more room and better lighting under the roof and replaced gable roofs. Some homeowners spared by the blaze adopted the new style of roof in turn, as can be seen at 741–745 and 710 Richelieu. Stone lintels frequently set off doors and windows, as at No. 650 Richelieu.
At the turn of the 20th century the district became even more densely populated. New streets opened west of Rue Racine—today known as Philippe-Dorval—and three-storey buildings sprang up everywhere. Less expensive flat roofs replaced mansard ones, and ornamentation was toned down. The buildings at 684–698 and 659–675 Richelieu are typical of the flat-roofed constructions of the day. The first boasts a broad, decorated cornice and elaborate mouldings and lintels, while the second building has a much more sober façade.
New life was breathed into this rather sorry part of town in the 1970s and 1980s. Homes were repaired, renovated, and rebuilt, making the neighbourhood more comfortable and home to a diverse range of people.
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