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The 1876 fire that devastated the modest Saint-Louis district and its hundreds of little wooden homes ensured the area would gradually be transformed as it stood in the shadow of the magnificent parliament that was being built. It lost its working-class residential feel in the 1960s as the winds of modernity blew over the neighbourhood. But locals made sure that all was not lost to the past.
Standing beside today’s towering modern buildings, we can still catch glimpses of the 17th century in what went on to become the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighbourhood. The curious fork in the road on Rue Scott as it meets Rue Saint-Gabriel, for instance, and the route taken by Rue Saint-Patrick a little further on, both hug the perimeter of the first conceded land. Amid the maze of tiny streets that crisscross north of Saint-Patrick—the former dividing line between the Saint-Louis and Saint-Jean districts —we can also see how Saint-Louis developed at the whim of property owners, while the Saint-Jean district was more carefully planned.
In the early 19th century low wage earners built modest wooden homes for themselves in a perimeter marked out on three sides by land set aside for the military. To the north the older Saint-Jean district curbed the expansion of the new Saint-Louis district.
Many families of Irish origin, who began to arrive in the city in the 1830s, lived on Scott, O’Connell, Saint-Patrick, and adjacent streets. They were too poor to continue their journey on to the continent’s English-speaking cities, where Irish immigrants tended to gather, and instead were a source of cheap labour in the city, competing for jobs with the French Canadians who lived around them. Tensions sometimes rose between the two groups who spoke different languages.
A blaze broke out on May 30, 1876, destroying 411 homes in the Saint-Louis district and making 3,000 homeless overnight, with only the Bon-Pasteur convent escaping the flames. Rebuilding work introduced clear differences between the north and south portions of Saint-Louis. To the south on Grande Allée, rich property owners built luxury homes near the new parliament, which opened in 1886. But to the north, small homes of two and three storeys reappeared, occasionally drawing inspiration from the mansard roof and stone façade of the parliament where some locals worked.
The Saint-Louis district become more and more densely populated until the 1910s and 1920s. Then Parliament Hill expanded as the government built four large buildings for civil servants behind parliament between 1910 and 1937, making the district less residential. The expropriation of people living on Sainte-Julie, Saint-Augustin, and the street known today as Louis-Alexandre-Taschereau ushered in an era of change even more sweeping than what was to come in the 1960s. In the meantime the growth of the public service provided even more jobs for locals and continued to serve as an architectural model.
Since the early 1960s the new role played by the Québec government in education, health, economic development, and support for the elderly and the poor—the driving force behind what was labelled the Quiet Revolution—meant jobs for thousands of new civil servants. These workers all needed offices so new buildings had to be built. The government chose to concentrate the expansion of this administrative centre on and around Parliament Hill.
Complexes G and H (Édifices Marie-Guyart and Jean-Talon), adjacent high-rise buildings, and new roads up to these buildings ensured that the more historic and modest areas of Saint-Louis all but disappeared. Only small pockets dating back to the 19th century (and after the fire of 1876) were spared by local residents determined to preserve them. Today these two- and three-storey homes huddle cheek by jowl along Claire-Fontaine, Scott, Saint-Patrick, De Lorne, Berthelot, Burton, and Prévost, just west of Parliament Hill. They are all that remain of the old Saint-Louis district.
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