A Promise Kept
When it opened in 1960, the Lafayette Building’s modern materials and design seemed to herald the bright future that lay ahead for Saint-Roch. Inside, the chic Lafayette restaurant also caused a sensation. Its upper floors provided office space to the local business community and the government offices the area wanted to attract. But things worked out much differently for the Lafayette Building than anyone could have imagined.
The business district
In the early decades of the 20th century, Saint-Roch was riding high. Industries and factories took on new workers by the thousands while department stores, performance venues, movie theatres, and restaurants attracted people from all across the region.
In the late 1920s, a broad boulevard replaced Des Fossés and Charest to ease traffic flow: boulevard Charest. It proved a magnet for new projects. Towering office blocks welcomed the headquarters of huge businesses to a modern, distinctly North American city centre.
A long lull
The crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s put the brakes on growth. Construction picked up again after World War II, though, as buildings an average of five storeys tall sprang up from lots that had stayed vacant ever since boulevard Charest had been built.
In 1959–1960, the daring Lafayette project heralded a new stage in Saint-Roch’s development. A young architect, André Robitaille, had just come back from Paris, where he had learned all about the latest construction techniques and materials. The Lafayette Building he designed would be a model of modernity and functionalism in Québec City.
A nine-storey building made of bare concrete, it had windowless sides, but the front and back were a sheet of glass and aluminum, two curtain walls that gave it a spectacularly new appearance.
The Big Orange
The architect covered the curtain walls in extravagant orange concrete panels, leading many to nickname the building “The Big Orange.” A corrugated concrete roof canopy set off the main entrance, and abstract murals by Paul Lacroix added a bold touch with their geometric shapes.
The stylish Lafayette Restaurant was on the ground floor and above it, a dinner club complete with function room and exhibition hall. From the moment they opened, they attracted the well-heeled crowd from the department stores in Saint-Roch and were a runaway success. The same architect, André Robitaille, was also responsible for their interior design, which was in the same style as the exterior. The rest of the building was taken up with office space.
A reversal of fortunes
No one could have predicted it, but the Lafayette Building coincided with a real downturn in fortunes for the area. Starting in the 1960s, many urbanites packed their bags and left for the quieter, more spacious suburbs. The provincial government also decided to build its spanking new offices beside the National Assembly in Upper Town. Many of the department stores along Saint-Joseph closed in the 1970s, bringing the neighbourhood to its knees.
The Lafayette Building always had tenants. But for years it remained in the shadows, alone.
The decades-old project to make Saint-Roch a business hub did not resurface again until the early 2000s, but today a redesign and a new vocation for the area has attracted a slew of businesses.
The Lafayette Building was renovated and renamed Édifice Charles-E.-Rochette, after the founder of the firm who now owns it. It may have lost its original orange, but it has at last taken its rightful place among the neighbourhood’s office buildings. Mission accomplished.