Where Business and Pleasure Meet.
Rue Saint-Jean is one of Québec City’s oldest commercial stretches. In the 19th century, merchants settled there in droves in houses that doubled as their place of business, lending the street its special charm. Their shops did so well that soon the street had to be widened. Today it continues to be a very popular spot, with its buskers, workers bustling to and fro, and tourists window-shopping.
Poet and composer-performer Gilles Vigneault said it all in his lyrics that harked back to an expression from his youth that suggested that a stroll down rue Saint-Jean to shop and socialize made it good to be alive.
The roots of Québec City
Surveyor Jean Bourdon laid out and named rue Saint-Jean, the route he took to get to the centre of town from his Saint-Jean fief in 1650 or thereabouts. During the French Regime, the road intersected a partly settled residential sector.
There are vestiges of the first St. John’s Gate on today’s rue Saint-Stanislas. Later, narrow military doors were built into the stone fortifications where the gate is today. The last of these doors was demolished in 1897 to make way for the electric tramway. The gate that you see now was built in 1939–1940.
A commercial thoroughfare
After the British Conquest, rue Saint-Jean was the main road linking the walled city to outlying districts. Since the market located across from Notre-Dame-de-Québec Church attracted clients and merchants, and the population within the walled section was expanding, the street soon become commercial. Salespeople and shopkeepers, artisans and artists gravitated towards rue Saint-Jean. Many of them had houses built that served double duty as homes and places of business.
A typical example
The house located at no. 1080 is a good example of these buildings with a double purpose. In 1829, master mason Louis Robin dit Latouche and carpenter Joseph Binet built it on the foundations of a one-storey residence that dated back to 1750. The ground floor was storefront and the two storeys above it were living space. It was the beginning of the golden age of commerce for the street.
Widening the street
When Montcalm Market opened in 1878 in what is now Place D’Youville, just outside the walls, it sealed the commercial vocation of rue Saint-Jean, which from that point on would be connected to the rest of the city by a horse-drawn tram.
However, the street’s narrowness was a problem. In 1889 municipal councillor Cyrille Duquet, who was also a clockmaker who invented the telephone handset in 1878, spearheaded a project to widen the street. The façades of the buildings on the south side—including Duquet’s shop—were demolished and rebuilt a few metres further back from the curb.
The façade of the building at no. 1159–1161 is one of only a few spared. The building, designed by architect Charles Baillairgé and constructed in 1857–1858, was set back from neighbouring houses. The studio of famous portraitist Théophile Hamel was located here.
A street that spans time
In the late 19th century, rue Saint-Joseph in Saint-Roch superceded rue Saint-Jean as the city’s main commercial strip, but that did not take away from Saint-Jean’s charm and commercial importance.
In the 1960s and 1970s, rue Saint-Jean experienced a renaissance and became the focal point for the counter-culture movement and the city’s night life. In the decades that followed, the street was renovated and became a venue for street musicians, festivals, and buskers. From time to time it is open to pedestrian traffic only.
All these periods shaped the soul of this inimitable street that continues to exude joie de vivre.