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BAILLAIRGÉ, CHARLES (baptized Charles-Philippe-Ferdinand), architect, land surveyor, civil engineer, and author; b. 29 Sept. 1826 at Quebec, second son of Pierre-Théophile-Ferdinand Baillairgé and Charlotte Janvrin Horsley; brother of George-Frédéric-Théophile; m. first 11 June 1849 Euphémie Duval in Beauport, Lower Canada, and they had 11 children, five of whom survived infancy; m. secondly 21 April 1879 Annie Wilson at Quebec, and they had nine children; d. there 10 May 1906.

Charles Baillairgé belonged to the fourth generation of a dynasty of sculptors, painters, and architects. Jean Baillairgé*, a master carpenter and joiner from the Poitou region of France, came to Quebec in 1741. His most significant contribution during his 60 years of activity in and around the town was the sculptural ornamentation for the cathedral of Notre-Dame. The skills of his son François*, a precocious and talented artist, are most evident in the design and execution of richly carved and classically inspired church interiors. Thomas*, the most gifted of the third generation and a cousin of Charles’s father, was the best church architect of his time in Lower Canada. He was able to synthesize the influences of French and English neoclassicism to create an integrated design for a twin-towered façade which inspired church builders for the rest of the century. Faithful to family tradition, he maintained a professional office with apprentices, taught, and made his splendid library available to students of the arts.

The son of a bookbinder turned assistant city engineer, Charles Baillairgé was thus born into a celebrated family. As a day-boy at the Petit Séminaire de Québec he was restless with the slow pace of learning and impatient to satisfy his innate curiosity for technical and mechanical subjects. Indeed, in 1843, at age 17 he and a schoolmate designed and built what was probably the first automobile in North America, powered by a two-cylinder steam-engine which so frightened horses that the police banned it from the roads.

That same year Charles left school and was apprenticed to his father’s cousin, Thomas. Endowed with a prodigious capacity for hard work that never failed him, he received a certificate of proficiency from Thomas in 1846 and was commissioned a provincial land surveyor two years later, all the while studying civil engineering on his own. From Thomas, he learned the fundamentals of neoclassical theory and practice, with its emphasis on symmetry, monumentality, and the use of classical orders. But his inquisitive nature led him to seek knowledge beyond Thomas’s world. A few years later, in a letter to the chief commissioner of public works, he would claim that despite his limited means, he ordered from Europe and the United States “all the best treatises on surveying, architecture and civil engineering along with many volumes on the arts, sciences and manufacturing. . . . I subscribe to publications which keep me abreast of all the developments in the scientific world.”

From the outset of his career he consciously adopted the role of the architect as a professional, in contrast to Thomas and earlier members of the family who preferred to work as architect-artisans. Charles drew inspiration from his architectural library, for many of his books, especially those from Europe, clearly enunciated the professional responsibilities of the architect. These duties included the preparation of plans, specifications, and working drawings, estimation of materials, supervision of construction, measurement of completed works, and establishment of an office of apprentices. Baillairgé never executed any of his buildings himself. Instead, he insisted on the impartiality of the architect, who acted as a liaison between clients and craftsmen. By adopting this position, he and other architects unwittingly contributed to the demise of craftsmanship. The controlling role of the architect encroached on the creativity of traditional craftsmen, and this infringement, in concert with an influx of factory-produced components, led to the disappearance of specialized crafts. As a professional, he belonged to Quebec’s middle class, joining a small and exclusive group of British-trained architects.

Baillairgé’s earliest buildings predictably resembled those of his master and mentor, Thomas. His first major commission, undertaken probably in 1847, was the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Quebec City. An unusually large job for such a young man, it was a rather awkward essay in neoclassicism. But from the start he showed a bent for experimentation that remained with him throughout his life. Quickly breaking with neoclassicism, he turned to the then radical Gothic Revival style for the church at Beauport in 1849 and the chapel for the Soeurs de la Charité de Québec in 1850. The chapel demonstrated his technical skill at spatial innovation, for it was the first triple-balcony interior in Quebec, described by a contemporary as “audacious yet gracious.” The architect had captured within “this small jewel of a church the . . . immensity of a cathedral.” At the same time he designed a series of retail stores that grew more and more daring in scale. The grandest of them all was for Louis Bilodeau, an energetic dry-goods merchant who epitomized a new breed of French Canadian entrepreneur. To match Bilodeau’s ambition, Baillairgé produced a façade with 27-foot-high Doric columns on the ground level (the equivalent of three storeys), an interior floating mezzanine supported by two levels of Egyptian columns, and gas lighting. These early designs established him as a talented and innovative architect capable of designing unconventional and stylistically eclectic buildings.

In the early 1850s he drew inspiration from the popular Greek Revival style. No matter what the type of building, Baillairgé’s instinctive response at this time was to produce designs with smooth wall surfaces and Greek motifs, drawn from British and American examples illustrated in his library. His most important building from this period was the Quebec Music Hall, which illustrates his use of pattern books, in particular those of New York architect and author Minard Lafever. The façade, with projecting centre frontispiece, featured baseless Doric columns and an array of Greek motifs – scrolls, rosettes, lions’ heads, and eared trim – the likes of which had never been seen before in Quebec City. Inside, the grand hall followed traditional church design with vaulted ceiling, side aisles supported by Doric columns, and familiar Quebec church colours of white and gold. But the decoration was new. Greek key and meander motifs, Lafever-inspired capitals, and anthemion scrolls led one contemporary writer to describe the Music Hall, begun in 1851 and completed three years later, as “the most beautiful temple to the arts that exists perhaps in America.” Although the hall was destroyed by fire, Baillairgé’s two most important Greek Revival houses survive. Designed in 1852, the residence of merchant Cirice Têtu in Quebec City and the manor-house at Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies built for Pascal-Amable Dionne display a wealth of Greek detail, ranging from the recessed formal entrance with Doric columns in antis and the ornate drawing-room of the town house to the picturesque gaiety of the rural retreat.

By 1853 Baillairgé had a thriving practice in and around Quebec. The establishment at this time of the Université Laval [see Louis-Jacques Casault*] gave him the opportunity to display his considerable knowledge of civil engineering. Goodlatte Richardson Browne designed the medical school, but Baillairgé was responsible for the two largest buildings, the residence and the central block. The scale of the project led him to focus on new developments in construction technology, known to him through his personal library, the publicity surrounding the erection of the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, and current American experiments with cast and wrought iron. Although he had occasionally used iron for decorative purposes in earlier work, he now integrated the material into the structural fabric of his buildings, signalling a move away from experimentation in architectural styles towards engineering concerns. Construction of the university buildings, the largest project in Quebec at that time, dragged on for four years. The main building, 80 feet in height, was the first in Quebec to incorporate iron columns into the walls to keep the structure from shifting. Moreover, the architect specified the use of iron columns to support the mezzanine and cast iron for the ornamental balcony in the ceremonial hall. The buildings were up to date in other respects, featuring airventilation systems, central heating, hot and cold running water, and gas lighting. Baillairgé’s design for the Monument aux Braves (1855), a single column crowned by a statue, combined his preferred Greek Revival style with a contemporary material, iron. The significance of this project lay in its prestige, for the architect had an opportunity to work closely with the political and cultural leaders of French-speaking Quebec, many of whom were members of the sponsoring organization, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. While the mid 1850s was a remarkably successful time for Baillairgé, and showed his talents both as an engineer and as an architect, it was also a period of international economic decline, made worse in Quebec by growing uncertainty about the choice of the city as the permanent seat of government.

In the face of such uncertainty and for want of greater challenge, Baillairgé was forced to turn to his most reliable client, the Roman Catholic Church. This development led to the creation of some of his best religious architecture, including the splendid Gothic Revival church at Sainte-Marie and the graceful iron fence and gates enclosing the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Quebec. At Sainte-Marie, an ambitious parish priest, Louis Proulx*, joined forces with Baillairgé to build the grandest church in the diocese. Inspired by models of British Decorated Gothic of the 14th century, it boasted a soaring white and gold interior with boldly carved quatrefoils, ribbed vaults, and clustered shafts. Baillairgé himself considered this to be his masterpiece in the Gothic idiom, describing it in later years as “one of the finest gothic interiors in Canada.” Yet by the late 1850s his relationship with the clergy had seriously deteriorated. Attempts by Bishop Charles-François Baillargeon* to alter Baillairgé’s plans for a church led to a passionate outburst from the architect, upset at possible damage to his professional reputation if the church were constructed as modified and resentful at not being given what he considered his share of diocesan business. By the end of the decade there was a real dearth of architectural commissions and, having cut himself off from his most faithful client, Baillairgé found himself in a precarious situation, with few commissions in hand and fewer in prospect.

So it was with a certain desperation that he turned to the other major patron of architectural services, the Department of Public Works. Baillairgé’s earlier encounters with the department had been marked by disputes and personality conflicts, an inauspicious beginning for a man who aspired to the title of chief architect of public works. First there had been the fence and the bathroom wing at the Marine and Emigrant Hospital. Despite the success of the fence design, a stone and cast-iron affair in the Greek Revival mode, cost overruns and untidy accounting on the part of the chief commissioner of public works, Jean Chabot*, left a bad impression with government officials after completion of the works in 1855. Then there was the competition for the Quebec custom-house, announced in 1854. Baillairgé was determined to win this prestigious competition and, with characteristic thoroughness, he travelled to Boston, New York, and Portland, Maine, to examine their recently erected custom-houses. His drawings for the competition reveal a monumental Greek Revival building, cruciform in plan with imposing Corinthian colonnades crowned by sculptured pediments. An unusual feature is what Baillairgé termed the “fireproof” nature of the structure, achieved by cast-iron I-beams reinforced with brick arches. Despite initial praise for his design, he did not win the competition. Infuriated, he attributed his failure to the hostile attitude of the assistant commissioner of public works, Hamilton Hartley Killaly* (whom Baillairgé had thwarted by refusing to endorse his choice of site for the custom-house), and architect Pierre Gauvreau*, Baillairgé’s rival for Quebec contracts from the department.

Determined to regain the confidence of the department, Baillairgé vowed that he intended “like the Phoenix to arise from my ashes and to use my talents in the service of my country.” An opportunity presented itself with the selection of Ottawa as the seat of government and the call in May 1859 for designs for the proposed parliament buildings. A year earlier, he had anticipated this competition by preparing a set of drawings for a parliament house in Quebec City. He had opted for the neoclassical style, because he believed it to be the only proper one for public buildings, relying as it did on fundamental principles of eternal beauty. His design featured a rectangular flat-roofed structure with monumental Corinthian colonnades on each façade, topped with bronze statues of Canada’s founding fathers and an elaborate dome. He was proud of his design, stating that he could “safely challenge America or even Europe to surpass” it. This was one of two sets of plans, both in the classical manner, that he entered in the competition. Neither won, probably because they were out of step with the Gothic Revival style sanctioned by use on the Houses of Parliament in Westminster (London) and favoured by the selection committee.

Stung by the loss of this plum contract, Baillairgé nevertheless roused himself to the challenge of designing and superintending the construction of the Quebec jail. He won this contract in 1860, although the process of selecting an architect had been clouded by an earlier competition which produced prize winners but no acceptable design. Further confusion occurred when the maximum cost was set at a figure far too low for the building program. Blinded by ambition, Baillairgé accepted this impossible condition. It proved to be a recipe for disaster. The actual design drew on reformist ideas for prison architecture then popular in the United States. Having visited all the prisons and penitentiaries from Quebec to Washington, Baillairgé incorporated into his plan such innovations as the separation of administrative and cell blocks and the creation of individual cells and common work areas. The board of prison inspectors praised Baillairgé’s design for respecting “the great social principle ‘that Society is bound to take every possible precaution to prevent those whom . . . she thrusts into prison from coming out thence worse than when they entered it.’” As construction proceeded, the impossibility of the original terms of reference wreaked havoc on the project. The contractors ran out of money, the department withheld funds, Baillairgé was beaten on the site by unpaid workmen, and construction ground to a halt. How Baillairgé would have resolved this untenable situation will never be known for, in the midst of these woes, in April 1863, he was summoned to Ottawa to supervise the troubled construction of the Parliament Buildings.

Under the direction of the superintendent of public works, Frederick Preston Rubidge*, Baillairgé, together with one of the original architects, Thomas Fuller*, was appointed to oversee the completion of the Parliament Buildings. New contracts had had to be, drawn up following the débâcle of the first three years of construction, during which all the funds had been exhausted with little to show. Baillairgé was chosen not for his skills in design but for his technical expertise. In the course of implementing the design of Thomas Stent and Augustus Laver* for the departmental buildings known as the east and west blocks, he made a number of changes to the original plans, in the interests of safety and utility. This intervention angered Stent, who countermanded Baillairgé’s orders to the perplexed workmen and engaged in a public debate with Baillairgé in the Montreal Gazette. On site Baillairgé’s vigilant surveillance of the works infuriated an already rancorous labour force, which threatened strikes and reprisals in the face of reduced payments for “extras.” Added to this unhappy situation was the request from the Department of Public Works in February 1865 that Baillairgé collect evidence of corruption for the arbitration of the claims of the architects and contractors arising out of the first contract for construction of the buildings. With so much to lose, politicians such as Hector-Louis Langevin and Joseph-Édouard Cauchon* and the contractors they favoured, such as Thomas McGreevy*, collaborated to present trumped-up charges that led to Baillairgé’s abrupt dismissal in May 1865, after only two years in Ottawa. Humiliated by the false allegations of “gross dereliction of duty” and thwarted in his desire to become chief architect of public works, he returned to Quebec City.

It was the Sisters of the Good Shepherd who offered the unemployed architect his first commission following his return: a new chapel for their convent. Perhaps disenchanted with the Gothic Revival style after his unfortunate experiences in Ottawa, Baillairgé reverted to his early preference, the neoclassical idiom. Circular and semi-circular motifs are interwoven both outside and inside the chapel, with stunning results in the double galleries and the shimmering glazed apse.

Building activity in Quebec City had slumped noticeably since the 1850s, making it difficult for architects – particularly those tinged with controversy – to make a living. Baillairgé was thus fortunate that he was named superintendent of works for the city in 1866, a position he held until 1898, although after 1878, as a result of changes in the municipal act, he lost the title of superintendent and usually called himself city engineer. Admittedly, he despised the steady diet of market houses, fire stations, drains, and sewers as being unworthy of his knowledge and skills. But occasionally projects materialized that were both challenging and prestigious. For example, the Dufferin Improvements, as they came to be called, offered Baillairgé a close relationship with their initiator, Governor General Lord Dufferin [Blackwood], and the challenge of participating in one of the great urban schemes of 19th-century Canada. Baillairgé created one of the most memorable landmarks on Dufferin Terrace, the picturesque green and white kiosks of iron with national emblems beneath the arches. Another of his projects was the series of iron staircases linking the upper and lower parts of the city, which gave Baillairgé a chance to experiment with iron as an engineering material. In style, they ranged from classical, as in the Saint-Augustin staircase of 1882–83, to frankly modern, as in the Sainte-Claire staircase of 1888. Bored with much of the work, however, he proposed several imaginative urban improvements to the city fathers, including an electro-chromatic revolving fountain, a 10-storey illuminated tower to commemorate Archbishop Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau*’s investiture as cardinal in 1886, a Victoria Jubilee tower, 150 feet high in iron and steel, inspired by his unsuccessful bid in the competition of 1889–90 for a tower in London modelled on the Eiffel Tower, and a series of fanciful slides and ice monuments for the Quebec winter carnival of 1895. Many of these projects were never built. As city engineer, he none the less devoted himself to improving the urban character of his native city.

With two exceptions, Baillairgé had worked independently. In 1853 he briefly joined forces with a former surveying apprentice in the firm Baillairgé et Fortin. From 1863 to 1866, during his stint in Ottawa, he had tried to maintain his ties with Quebec City through a partnership with another former apprentice, Joseph-Ferdinand Peachy. Baillairgé and Peachy adopted a rather modern and fulsome Italianate idiom for the few projects they did together, in particular the interior of the church of Saint-Laurent, on Île d’Orléans, and two suburban residences.

From the beginning of his career, Baillairgé believed strongly in the importance of educating architects, builders, and tradesmen in technical and scientific matters. In the 1850s he regularly gave lectures on the physical sciences and mathematics to non-technical audiences at the city’s literary associations. His good voice, clear diction, and assured manner made him a popular public speaker. In 1866 he published a comprehensive treatise on geometry, trigonometry, and mensuration aimed at simplifying and synthesizing existing knowledge. An outgrowth of this work was his preoccupation with the prismoidal formula, a means of calculating the volume of certain prisms. It led to his invention of a system for calculating the volume of all shapes and forms in nature, a device of great utility to tradesmen and craftsmen alike. Known as the Stereometrical Tableau (a set of 200 wooden models comprising all known geometrical forms, their segments and sections, accompanied by a treatise explaining the formula), this invention won medals, prizes, and diplomas from numerous scientific and literary societies in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Baillairgé produced several versions of the tableau. In 1874 he made a three-month trip to France to receive the bronze medal awarded by the Société de Vulgarisation pour l’Enseignement du Peuple as well as the Philippe de Girard Medal for the most useful discovery of the year. Later in life Baillairgé, who was fluent in both English and French, turned his attention to the study of words, producing several dictionaries and other books on etymology. He thus made a significant contribution to the spread of technical knowledge.

Related to these endeavours was his leadership in setting professional standards for the three disciplines in which he practised. In 1859, as poorly trained architects, engineers, and surveyors flooded the market, professional men responded by establishing organizations. Baillairgé had sufficient standing in 1861 to be named vice-president of the Association of Provincial Land Surveyors and Institute of Civil Engineers and Architects. When the Quebec land surveyors were legally incorporated in 1882, he was elected the group’s first president. A founding member of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers in 1887, he wrote over 30 articles on a wide range of subjects for the fledgling Canadian Engineer (Toronto). He was most active in the Province of Quebec Association of Architects, founded in 1890. In addition to serving on its executive in several capacities, setting curriculum, and examining candidates, he often delivered papers at its annual meetings, and contributed more than 40 articles to the Canadian Architect and Builder. In 1882 he had become a charter-member of the Royal Society of Canada and presented at its meetings a variety of papers on technical and literary subjects.

Spanning almost 60 years, the career of Charles Baillairgé was remarkably diverse and prolific. Both his prodigious activity and his querulous relationships with his employers reflected his strong character. He was on the one hand curious, energetic, inventive, unorthodox, indefatigable, confident, enthusiastic, honest, and humorous; on the other hand he could be aggressive, forthright, outspoken, ambitious, tenacious, disputatious, and proud. Although he recognized that he worked “in an end-of-the-world sort of place,” he resolutely refused to be limited by this circumstance and in fact participated in the broad intellectual currents of his time. Designer of almost 200 buildings, author of over 250 books and articles in both French and English, he played a major role in improving the building arts in Canada and in promoting the dissemination of technical knowledge. During his lifetime, he was recognized both nationally and internationally for his technical, scientific, and literary achievements. His impact, however, was possibly greatest on his native city of Quebec, where to this day traces of his work – be it in architecture, engineering, or urban planning – still abound in the old city.

Christina Cameron

[This biography is based entirely on the work published by Christina Cameron, Charles Baillairgé, architect & engineer (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1989). The end-notes and the references in app.3 provide the main sources. In addition, app.3 contains a complete list of Baillairgé’s writings and of the works on architecture which formed part of his library.  c.c.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Christina Cameron, “BAILLAIRGÉ, CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 21, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/baillairge_charles_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/baillairge_charles_13E.html
Author of Article:   Christina Cameron
Title of Article:   BAILLAIRGÉ, CHARLES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   June 21, 2024