OUELLET, DAVID, architect and wood-carver; b. 15 Sept. 1844 in La Malbaie, Lower Canada, son of Édouard Ouellet, a farmer, and Marie Lebel; m. before 1884 Emma Laforme, and they adopted a nephew and a niece; d. 14 July 1915 at Quebec.
David Ouellet studied at the Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière from 1856 to 1864. He was then apprenticed as an architect to François-Xavier Berlinguet, a Quebec architect and wood-carver, and he worked with Louis Jobin*, an apprentice carver at the time. Under the guidance of Abbé Pierre-Stanislas Vallée, an architect and carver, Ouellet created a relief map of the village of Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière (La Pocatière), for which he was awarded an honourable mention at the 1867 universal exposition in Paris. He went to Montreal in 1869, but after a few lean years he returned to Quebec; from 1874 to 1876 he was in partnership there with a gilder and ornament maker, Louis Alméras. When he was 31 he began to practise as an architect at Quebec, opening in his home an architectural agency which he operated along with his wood-carving studio.
Because of his traditional training, Ouellet remained on the margin of the architectural revival set in motion when the province of Quebec was opened to external influences. Unlike his fellow architects, he had little to do with the political life of his day. He made only one brief foray into municipal politics in 1911, as an alderman in Ville-Montcalm (which two years later would be annexed to Quebec City). During his term of office he served as chairman of the committee on roads and waterworks. His extensive professional work was done largely outside the urban centres and consisted primarily of religious architecture. Ouellet’s few experiments with secular architecture reveal the pre-eminence of religious art in his creations, for example the opulent interiors of the Maison Terreau-Racine on Rue des Remparts in Quebec, or the row houses of judge Alexandre Chauveau on Rue Sainte-Ursule, which resemble impressive presbyteries.
Ouellet’s first architectural work, the church in Rivière-Ouelle, whose plans date back to 1876, took him along the path that Berlinguet and Vallée were pursuing on the south shore of the St Lawrence, where the growing population required new places of worship. This was the field to which Ouellet devoted his career. He managed a business for the organized production of churches, undertaking to design the buildings and then carry out and supervise construction from the planning stage to the interior decoration. In his capacity as an architect, he made himself indispensable to church construction. Most of his fellow architects devoted their energies to innovation, but Ouellet relied on his traditional training. The professional specialist, which his practice as an architect, wood-carver, and gilder showed him to be, offered security to a generation of builders who were valued by the clergy and favoured by the project managers. Ouellet built or remodelled nearly 250 churches, mainly between 1876 and 1905.
Within Victorian architecture, Ouellet’s output is distinguished by polychromy, structures of exaggerated dimensions, and an exuberant emphasis on the monumental befitting the ambitions of a clergy rapidly growing in numbers. Many of his projects involved replacing the screened façades of old churches and were in keeping with this spirit of grandeur. One of his early commissions, in 1882, was the historic church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in L’Islet, to which he added a wide façade flanked by towers whose tall steeples stood out in an imposing silhouette.
Ouellet liked to use diverse textures and colour contrasts, combining panelling, rough stone, corner armatures, and foundations of hewn stone. The Hospice de la Miséricorde at Quebec (1887), made of limestone and orange-coloured brick, incorporates these preferences. Ouellet first manifested his talent, however, in the construction of tall steeples. From Saint-Louis in Kamouraska (1883) to Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly (1901), the architect displayed a formal repertoire in which multiple intersecting geometric planes vie for attention with the height of the structure. The steeples of Saint-Louis-de-Lotbinière would be toppled by a hurricane in 1913. The steeple of Saint-Lazare (1881) in Bellechasse, before it was torn down, had soared to just over 210 feet.
From 1902 Ouellet was in partnership with his adopted son, Pierre Lévesque, whom he was training. The formal eclecticism characteristic of his steeples now pervaded his work. He increasingly brought the central tower forward to make his façades more distinctive. At the same time he abandoned the classical rigidity of his early constructions in favour of a picturesque approach that incorporated bosses, classical ornaments, cornices, and sharply projecting strips into busy compositions rich in contrasting shapes, colours, and textures. The façades of the churches of Saint-Léon-le-Grand (1914) near Louiseville and Sainte-Luce (1914) near Saint-Germain-de-Rimouski (Rimouski) illustrate this particularly imaginative eclectic style, which from a catalogue of occasionally repeated patterns presents varied combinations, creating buildings that are all different and that are at once both the work of an architect and identifying manifestos of the Church.
Ouellet owned an extensive library and kept abreast of progress in form and technique, as the art nouveau influence in the altar of the church at Cap-Santé (1877) and the machinery in his workshops show. However, the primary aim of his projects was to make it easier for rural labourers with little training in innovative methods to do their work. In this respect his evocative sketches and detailed estimates not only defined the architect’s plan, but also made it intelligible to both client and project manager. While dependent upon traditional methods of construction, Ouellet’s plans, which were designed as modules with interchangeable components, optimized the output of studio and site. The same system guaranteed that the client would have an exclusive choice of architecture as well as a range of effects and prices.
Ouellet put his creativity at the service of the church in Quebec, eager to ensure savings and comfort. He developed technical improvements and church furniture (he patented his pews, which were distinctive and made of both light and dark wood). Occasionally he used new materials that were more durable or less expensive. Although his works fit into an architectural continuity, they also satisfied a clergy opposed to any innovation that might threaten its identity. Coming after the builder priests, Ouellet brought church design back into secular architectural practice by coming between the clergy and the builder. He articulated the needs of the one, supervised the work of the other, and managed the entire production from the shell to the gilding.
Ouellet’s legacy was not only original architectural composition within the tradition of contemporary building; he also left a model of hybrid practice, which had drawn on earlier builders and pointed to the great architectural offices of the 20th century. The output of his studios, which had up to twice as many employees as those of others in the profession, bears witness to the success of his career. One of his many apprentices, Joseph-Georges Bussières, who was his son-in-law and his partner from 1889 to 1891, would replicate in the Portneuf region the pattern of his mentor.
A charter-member of the Province of Quebec Association of Architects, Ouellet said he was “the only architect in the association maintaining a studio for carrying out all sorts of architectural projects.” This versatility, typical of a business leader, enabled the architectural “artisan” to make a name for himself in a field increasingly characterized by professionalism, technical progress, influences from outside the province, and other factors of the revival. Much of the architectural heritage of a Quebec on the borderline between the traditional and the modern bears the imprint of his versatility.
Only one study of David Ouellet’s career has been produced to date: Sylvie Tanguay, “David Ouellet (1844–1915), architecte: exploration de la pratique architecturale relative à l’architecture religieuse en milieu rural à la fin du XIXe siècle” (thèse de ma, univ. Laval, Québec, 1988). It includes detailed references to primary sources, monographs, and articles concerning the subject.
Ouellet is mentioned in two works by Luc Noppen et al., Québec: trois siècles d’architecture ([Montréal], 1979) and Québec monumental, 1890–1990 (Sillery, Qué., 1990). A partial listing of his works appears in A. J. H. Richardson et al., Quebec City: architects, artisans and builders (Ottawa, 1984), 429–30. Several of the churches that he remodelled are studied by Luc Noppen in Les églises du Quebec (1600–1850) (Québec, 1977) and by Gérard Morisset* in L’architecture en Nouvelle-France (Québec, 1949), Le Cap-Santé, ses églises et son trésor, C. Beauregard et al., édit. (2e éd., Montréal, 1980), and Les églises et le trésor de Lotbinière (Québec, 1953).