A Mix of French and English Traditions
This house at 14 avenue Saint-Denis is a good example of the dwellings built in Old Québec in the 19th century. Flanked by neighbouring houses, it blends features from the French and the English tradition. Québec’s French Canadian merchant class would learn to live in these homes designed for an English way of life, but without forsaking their Gallic heritage. This architecture was also adapted to local conditions.
A house in the English style
The most typical Old Québec house made its debut in 1815 or thereabouts in the oldest part of the city—the Latin Quarter, in the vicinity of rue Couillard—before spreading throughout the district. The British who settled in Québec City at the time sought to duplicate the way of life they had known in their home country. They were put off by certain practices from the French Regime, especially shared accommodations in rooming or apartment houses. More affluent residents therefore commissioned single-family homes in a style inspired by the classic London dwelling.
The kind of housing these British inhabitants were accustomed to had grown commonplace in London after the terrible fire that destroyed a third of the city in 1666, namely, two- and three-storey single-family residences clustered around square commons. Inside, a long hallway led to each room. This layout provided the privacy cherished by the British.
The London model was transplanted to Québec with a few variations. The French-speaking middle class was loath to adopt the three storeys that this kind of house usually had. In the French tradition, one-storied city residences suggested poverty, but buildings with more than two storeys usually housed at least two families living in relatively close quarters. That is why the first London houses built in Québec for French Canadians had only two storeys, even though three storeys would become standard.
The classic London house was long, narrow, and set back from the street to avoid the unwanted gaze of passersby. A lane led to a private stable behind the house. But in Québec these features could not be reproduced because of the shallow French-style lots. Thus, the facades of houses in Old Québec were flush with the street, and the first floor was above street level to preserve privacy. There were steps leading up to the front door, which was protected by a small vestibule. Since there was no back lane, the yard and stable were accessible via a carriage gate facing the street.
Unlike their London counterparts, houses in Old Québec often had very ornate entrances. The front door was usually aligned with the ground floor windows. The door was tall and often had a window above it to bring light into the vestibule and the hall inside.
Another distinguishing feature of houses in Old Québec was their sloped roof, the flat roof of London dwellings being likely to collapse under the weight of the snow. Since the inhabitants of Québec had kept with the French habit of using the attic as living space, architects here opted for gabled roofs, sometimes with dormer windows for brighter rooms and better ventilation.
Lastly, because the slate and tile used in London was ill suited to cold weather, Québec architects chose tin instead. They also maintained the French practice of building the chimney into the high common wall that separated the houses and acted as a fire stop.
A unique Québec architecture
The typical Old Québec house continued to evolve throughout the 19th century, gaining its own specific identity from the marriage of French and British culture. Its unique design combined the architectural traditions of the French Regime and the lifestyle imported from the United Kingdom in a variation tailored to the local climate.