Civil and religious architecture in New France and Louisiana

Much of the civil and religious architecture in French North America was the result of collaboration between royal engineers, who created the designs, and civil architects, who directed the construction of buildings as sub-contractors.

Civil architects, many of them born in the Americas, were often resentful of the higher profile of their counterparts in the Génie (Army Corps of Engineers), but they still enjoyed positions of high social status in colonial society. There were no guild systems in French North America; architects received informal training in others’ ateliers and could become master architects much more quickly and easily than their counterparts in France.
The Hôtel de Vaudreuil in Montreal (1723)
Colonial Montreal’s most graceful piece of civil architecture was the Hôtel de Vaudreuil, likely designed by royal engineer and architect Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry (1682-1756). Like many engineer-architects, Chaussegros supplemented his income by designing homes for wealthy private clients – this one for Governor General Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil (1643–1725). It was the most metropolitan building in the city, built in a contemporary style modeled on a modest country chateau. Two stories tall, it had a high hipped roof and elaborate dormers, pavilions on each side, and an elegant double staircase leading to a rusticated Doric doorway. The rural style of the building was appropriate, as it opened onto spacious gardens celebrated for their beauty and also referenced Vaudreuil’s status as a member of the landed gentry. In 1727, two years after Vaudreuil’s death, the house was rented to the Crown and henceforth became the official residence of the Governors General, beginning with Charles de la Boische, Marquis of Beauharnois (1671–1749). One 1727 source remarked that “the house is very graceful, well distributed, and built with convenance and [has] a beautiful view.” The house was destroyed in a fire eighty years later.
The Episcopal Palace in Quebec City (1693–98)
The career of Quebec architect Claude Baillif (c.1635–98) demonstrates the extraordinary flexibility enjoyed by colonial builders and the informal use of the title of “architect” in the colony. Baillif was (possibly) born in Normandy to a petit-bourgeois family of masons who soon moved to Paris. He had likely achieved journeyman status by the time he was indentured by the Quebec Seminary as a stonecutter (tailleur de pierre) in 1675 – although he styled himself as an “architect of Paris.”  Less than five years after fulfilling his obligations to the Seminary, Baillif had become the leading builder in the city. With a large atelier serving private, ecclesiastical, and government clients, he was responsible for around 40 structures, most importantly the design for enlarging the cathedral (1683) and the Episcopal Palace (1693–98), which is considered his greatest masterpiece. Baillif’s facade is strangely anticlassical, unlike most of the public buildings in New France and Louisiana. The top of the facade is shaped like a medieval ogee arch, which is unique in the French colonies and derives from Mathurin Jousse’s Le théâtre de l’art de charpentier (1627). Curiously, this kind of façade was not used in France, but turns up – complete with a matching oculus – in James Smith’s Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh, finished five years earlier in 1688.
Saint-Louis Church in New Orleans (1724)
Little remains of the civil architecture of ancien régime New Orleans; the only surviving structure is the Ursuline Convent (1732; 1745-50). Fortunately, we have high-quality drawings of the colony’s principal church, dedicated to Saint Louis (1724). Churches in French North America were usually built by civil architects, some of them members of religious orders. Saint-Louis is a rare exception, designed by royal engineer-architect Adrien de Pauger (c.1685–1726). Unlike most French churches in the Americas, which looked like their equivalents in rural France or were copied from Italian or French prints, Saint-Louis followed the prototypes developed for garrison churches by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633–1707), Louis XIV’s principal engineer-architect – specifically Vauban’s chapel in the citadel of Saint-Étienne in Besançon (1683). Town planners chose an engineer-architect for their church because the only available local builders were Canadians unfamiliar with wood frame construction. Pauger worked on the Saint-Louis project with a Bavarian carpenter named Mikael Seringue (Johann Michael Zehringer), who had previously collaborated with engineer-architects on other projects in the colony. The church had a Latin cross plan, measured 108 by 32 feet, and was built of cypress timber. The side walls were half-timbered on a brick foundation with diagonal beams forming partial saltire crosses filled with bricks. The facade had two stories of equal width, pronounced quoining on the corners, a string course between the stories, an arched doorway in the center of the ground floor, and an oculus window. The building was crowned by a triangular pediment carved with a “gloria” trinity motif. Above the door was a bell tower with an arcaded belfry and a bell-shaped cap. The church had a coved ceiling and was plastered on the interior walls and vault. It was not completed until 1727, a year after Pauger’s death, and was still equipped with stretched cloth windows as late as 1731, as the glass had not yet arrived from France. Despite this shortcoming and the apparently poor quality of wood, this little church with its classical details was widely praised by the town’s inhabitants, who found it hard to believe that something of such elegance could be built in such an unpromising colony.


Published in may 2021

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