CHAREST, ELZÉAR (baptized Tiburce-Elzéar), architect and office holder; b. 4 June 1850 in Château-Richer, Lower Canada, son of Tiburce Charest, a doctor, and Rose (Rosalie) Paquet; m. 3 July 1876 Elmire Bazin at Quebec, and they had 16 children; d. there 6 April 1927.
Elzéar Charest is listed as an architect in the Quebec City directories from 1875. In 1880, while still apprenticed to architect Joseph-Ferdinand Peachy*, he collaborated with sculptor Louis Jobin in creating the allegorical float for the town of Beauport in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste parade. His early work as an architect on his own, which included several houses built between 1880 and 1885 in Saint-Jean ward and at Saint-Sauveur (Quebec), suggested he was destined to embrace the eclectic style prevalent towards the end of the 19th century. His first important public building, the Saint-Pierre market in Saint-Sauveur (1888), deviated little from the standard mansard-roof design established a few years earlier by architect Paul Cousin in the Montcalm market. On the other hand, Charest’s plan for Zéphirin Paquet*’s department store on Rue Saint-Joseph in Quebec City (1890) is remarkable in several respects, with features that were surprisingly modern for the time; for example, this six-storey granite building was equipped with an elevator and electric lighting. However, the lack of discernible dominant elements in the façade shows how difficult it was to reconcile ornamental expression with the new rational values called for in a department store building. As well, when Charest was chosen in the competition for the construction of the new city hall at Quebec in 1890 (the jury was chaired by Eugène-Étienne Taché*) his plan, which was too reminiscent of the Second Empire decorative tradition, was soon dropped by the city council; after a long delay, it was replaced by a proposal from Georges-Émile Tanguay (1894) that enjoyed the support of the city engineer, Charles Baillairgé*.
Following this repudiation, Charest was offered the post of director of the provincial Department of Public Works in 1891, probably as a form of compensation thought up by Taché, who was then deputy minister for crown lands. Charest succeeded engineer Jean-Baptiste Derome and would remain in charge of the department until 1915, serving under eight different ministers and several administrations. Principally responsible for the construction and maintenance of public buildings throughout the province, Charest took advantage of a situation he judged propitious for the invention of symbols expressing the identity of provincial institutions. To this end, he turned to the kind of heraldic and architectonic idiom introduced by the work of Taché and, to a lesser extent, by the beautification plans of Governor General Lord Dufferin [Blackwood*]. At the same time he devised a personal interpretation of the “fortress style” inspired by medieval castles that was characterized by the concentration of embellishment in the roofs and by the almost exclusive use of sheet metal. The courthouse in Hull, built between 1891 and 1894 and now no longer standing, was an excellent example of the fortress style. The ornamentation consisted solely, however, of sheet metal; the humble materials used were in sharp contrast to Charest’s original ambition to impose a distinctive provincial style of architecture through a network of public buildings in small towns.
By choosing to focus on decorative details rather than develop a cohesive architectural style and, above all, by confining himself to a traditionalism out of touch with the political expectations of the day, Charest failed to entrench his proposals and as a result, by around 1910, he found himself to a certain extent professionally marginalized. In fact, for the construction of the courthouse at Sherbrooke (1904-6), he recycled the principal features of the design he had submitted 13 years earlier in the competition for the city hall at Quebec. In the Sherbrooke design, the fortress style was enhanced by reference to the symmetry and hierarchy of plans typical of the Second Empire. In the case of the École Normale of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Chicoutimi (1907), Charest opted for a building heavily marked by classical rhetoric, thereby acknowledging that the fortress style had failed to become a representative form of public building within the province of Quebec. The house he built for himself in Saint-Jean ward (804-10 Rue Richelieu, 1907), complete with its corner turret, would be the final expression of Charest’s adventure in this type of ornamentation, an adventure that nevertheless remains a conspicuous contribution to the architectural originality of Quebec City.
ANQ-Q, CE301-S6, 4 juin 1850; S97, 3 juill. 1876. L’Action catholique (Québec), 6 avril 1927. L’Événement, 7 avril 1927. Le Journal de Québec, 30 nov. 1877; 27 mars, 5 juill. 1880; 5 mai 1881; 22 févr. 1883; 25 janv. 1884; 27 févr. 1886. La Minerve, 27 févr. 1886. La Semaine commerciale (Québec), 5 juill. 1907. Le Soleil, 7 avril 1927. Claude Bergeron, Architectures du XXe siècle au Québec (Québec, 1989), 95. Robert Caron, Inventaire des permis de construction des Archives de la ville de Québec, 1913-1930 (3v., Ottawa, 1980). Guy Coutu, Chicoutimi: 150 ans d’images ([Chicoutimi, Qué.], 1992), 222-23. Patrick Dieudonné, “Le style forteresse ou l’apport d’Elzéar Charest à l’éclectisme québécois,” Continuité (Québec), 45 (automne 1989): 12-16. Early Canadian court houses, comp. Margaret Carter (Ottawa, 1983). Luc Noppen et al., Québec monumental, 1890-1990 (Sillery, Qué., 1990), 78. Luc Noppen et Lucie K[oenig] Morisset, Québec, de roc et de pierres: la capitale en architecture (Sainte-Foy, Qué., ), 85-88. J. R. Porter et Jean Bélisle, La sculpture ancienne au Québec; trois siècles d’art religieux et profane (Montréal, 1986), 237. Que., Parl., Sessional papers, report of the commissioner of public works and colonization, later the commissioner of colonization and public works, 1900-2.