That said, New France remains a mystery for the average public in the United States despite the fact that an immense chunk, from Michigan to Louisiana, was part of it. The colonial period as it is taught in the United States more or less focuses on Jamestown and Plimoth before jumping ahead to 1776. I wish that I were being sarcastic but it's true, if my experience working in history museums in the States is any indication. The use of the term "metropolis" with respects to a colonial settlement might strike some as odd (at least if we're still talking about Jamestown or Plimoth), but in the context of the period, some settlements reached extraordinary heights. British North America had its "metropolises" like Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and understanding the rise of these urban centers is an important part in learning about the growth of what would become the United States.
Important urban settlements also took root in New France, spanning from New Orleans in Louisiana to the fortress and seaport of Louisbourg in what is now Nova Scotia, and in the Antilles. As the capital of France's North American empire, the walled city of Québec had its fair share of political, economic, and spiritual centers. Founded in 1608, it was not until 1663 that Québec became a royal province directly administered by the king's officials. The stratification of colonial government that followed this takeover manifested itself dramatically through the construction of elaborate municipal buildings.
When I looked at plans for public buildings in the city for the first time, I was struck by the immensity and sophistication of structures whose very names- palace, château, etc.- underscored their importance in the built landscape of French North America and derived from metropolitan precedents. Although my research focuses on furnishings and interiors, understanding consoles and chairs is useless without first being familiar with the buildings that housed them and the spaces that dictated their need and use.
Unfortunately, none of the major public buildings from the French colonial regime survived British bombs in 1759, fire, or urban renewal. They do, however, exist on paper; here is a sampling of plans, elevations, and objects from structures that marked the early colonial cityscape of Québec.
Three palaces existed over the course of the French regime. The first grew out of a converted brewery in the mid-1680s. This first palace burned in 1713, was rebuilt in 1715-1716, and partially again in 1726. Rebuilt that same year and integrating the remains of the 1713 structure, the third palace suffered damage during the British bombardment of Québec in 1759; remaining traces were further destroyed in 1776 after an American attack on Québec the year before. During the period of New France, the palace was part of a much larger complex that included an ornamental garden and military structures including an arsenal, gunsmith, jail, and bakery.
Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry, a military engineer stationed in Canada, was charged with building and renovating many of Québec's public buildings, including the château Saint-Louis and the palace in the mid-1720s. His elevations and floorplans of the palace are among the sole illustrations of the building's appearance, including its interiors. Fortunately, detailed records survive that point to expensive renovations ordered by Dupuy; he considered elaborate woodwork such as cornices and fireplace surrounds to be the only things "suitable" for an official as high-ranking as the intendant. In contrast, Léry's plans called for such features to be realized in plaster so as to avoid fire. The cost of this work, combined with that spent on furniture and other debts incurred during his intendancy, led to a bulk of Dupuy's property being seized by officials in 1728.
The episcopal palace grew out of the need for an official residence to house the bishop. While Monseigneur de Laval lodged with religious orders and laypeople alike, construction of a permanent episcopal seat began under his successor, Monseigneur de Saint-Vallier. Architect Claude Baillif was charged with building the palace by 1692; it was completed in 1700. Floorplans for the palace, drawn up by Chaussegros de Léry in 1743, illustrate a sophisticated layout of public and private spaces including a chapel.
Damaged during the siege of 1759, what remained continued to be used by successive bishops and the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada into the 1830s. The last vestiges of the palace were destroyed between 1852 and 1853.
The eight armchairs are the work of Jean Nadal, a menuisier who worked as a master craftsmen in Paris between 1730 and his death in 1756. They are among the few pieces of furniture known to have graced the interiors of a major colonial building in Québec before 1759.
Construction was slow, and it was not until 1684 that Claude Baillif began transforming the small church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix into a structure worthy of the appellation of cathedral. Chaussegros de Léry would pick up where Baillif left off from 1744 to 1748. Heavily bombarded by the British, the cathedral was rebuilt from 1766 to 1771, with work on the interior continuing into the 1820s. The cathedral, elevated to a minor basilica in 1874, fell prey to flames in 1922 and was rebuilt from surviving plans.
All of these buildings attest to the importance of Québec as a major metropolis in colonial North America, at least by the eighteenth century. This quick survey hardly does the topic justice, and significant architectural histories have been written on the subject. Studies on the interiors of these buildings, however, is only just beginning.