Bourgeois House, Home of Intellectual Life
Constructed in the mid-19th century according to plans by Charles Baillairgé, an architect who would leave an indelible mark on Québec’s urban landscape, this house owned by wealthy merchant Cirice Têtu is a fine example of the residential architecture in fashion in Québec at the time. The dwelling would later belong to a family of intellectuals who would entertain celebrities there, including an empress and the father of a little prince.
In 1852 wholesaler Cirice Têtu hired a promising young architect to draft the plans for a residence he wanted built in the affluent part of Upper Town. Barely 26 years old, Charles Baillairgé was no novice. He had already designed the first Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Québec Church, which has since been replaced. As Québec’s municipal engineer for some 30 years, he would become the city’s most prominent architect.
Cirice Têtu was among Québec’s most successful importers, supplying numerous rural merchants, among other customers. The businessman’s fortune was such that the architect was given free creative rein. The residence that Baillairgé designed for his client was in the Neo-Grec style popular in the United States and Great Britain. The façade’s rich ornamentation, especially the columned entrance and generous windows with stone uprights, gave the building a distinct look. The façade was also embellished with classical Greek motifs such as garlands, wreaths, and flowers carved into the stone.
The architect lavished special attention on the interior decor. Baillargé attached importance to the artistic unity of his work, and so repeated the Neo-Grec influence in the rooms. He even designed the motif for the wide plaster mouldings all along the walls and the wooden frames for the doors and windows.
A place of gathering
The De Koninck family moved into this luxurious residence in the late 1930s. Belgian-born Charles De Koninck had been recently hired by Université Laval as a philosophy professor. He and his wife Zoé would have 11 children who were raised in this privileged environment. Many of them would go on to contribute significantly to Québec society, in particular in the field of education. Université Laval’s humanities building is named after the father of this family of intellectuals.
Charles De Koninck’s published work in philosophy and theology earned him an international reputation that enabled him to develop a network of friends and colleagues within the elite intellectual circles of the time. His avenue Sainte-Geneviève residence became a home-away-from-home for famous people from all walks of life—authors Félix-Antoine Savard, Roger Lemelin, and Gilles Vigneault; politician René Lévesque; and the last empress of Austria, Zita de Bourbon-Parme, and her son Rodolphe, both of whom sought refuge in Québec during World War II.
A noted guest
In May 1942 French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who by then had been in exile in the United States for over a year, was invited to speak in Québec. His noted appearance in the capital was organized by friend and pen pal Charles De Koninck. The topic was France’s wartime tribulations.
After the lecture a group of intellectuals retired to the De Konincks’, where Saint-Exupéry was a guest for several days. The writer soon tired of the conversation with his colleagues and joined the children in drawing and making paper airplanes. Legend has it that the famous character in The Little Prince—published the following year—is based on De Koninck’s oldest child, Thomas. Saint-Exupéry, who went missing in 1944 during a reconnaissance mission over Provence, would never have the opportunity to deny or confirm it.