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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada


The Architecture of Louisbourg

Susann Myers

Restoration Architect
Fortress of Louisbourg

The reconstructed buildings at the Fortress of Louisbourg represent approximately one quarter of the buildings that existed within the fortified town during the 18th century. They have been reconstructed on their original sites, to reflect the 18th-century buildings as closely as possible. A great deal of primary evidence pertaining to Louisbourg was available as a research base for the reconstruction. Some of the evidence was archaeological, gathered from the excavation of building sites within the original townsite, where foundation walls and buried artifacts remained relatively undisturbed. In addition, information was gathered from 750,000 pages of 18th-century documents concerning Louisbourg from the national archives of France, Britain, the United States and Canada. These documents included plans and drawings of various parts of the town prepared by the Royal Engineer and his staff, detailed specifications and cost estimates for the construction of publicly-owned buildings, contracts of sale for buildings and materials, inventories of personal belongings made within houses upon the death of an inhabitant, and others. The evidence which pertained directly to Louisbourg was augmented by secondary evidence; surviving 18th-century buildings in France and the French colonies in North America were studied for architectural details and evidence of building techniques, and books written in the 17th and 18th centuries about French building construction were important sources of information.

Constructed in the French Colonial style, the architecture of Louisbourg was based on the architectural styles of France but was influenced by the North American climate, experience and availability of materials. By the time of Louisbourg's settlement in 1713, French settlers had acquired extensive experience erecting buildings in Newfoundland, Acadia and Canada (Quebec), and their dwellings were well-adapted to their environment. Eighteenth-century French architecture at Louisbourg was typically one-storey or two-storey buildings, with steep- pitched roofs, often with hipped ends, and with many door and window openings, usually with small-paned casement windows. Door and window openings were arranged symmetrically when possible, but were placed to suit the use of the building interior. By comparison, British Colonial architecture of the time in North America was based on the English Georgian style, and typically showed less steep roofs (most with side gables), a rigidly symmetrical arrangement of double-hung windows (usually 5-bayed on the front façade) and a central door emphasized by an entablature, pilasters and other classical details.

The architecture of Louisbourg was vernacular for the most part. That is, carpenters and masons built in traditional ways that were not influenced by conscious desires for a particular style or fashion. Some structures were formally designed in a current architectural style, primarily by Etienne Verrier, Chief Engineer of the town from 1725 to 1745. Verrier's primary goal was to complete the fortifications, quay wall and town plan, but he was also responsible for the design of some of the entrance gates to the town. The Frederic Gate at the base of Rue Toulouse, for instance, was built in the fashionable Baroque style, with wood cladding in this case imitating the heavy, rusticated stonework favoured in that style.

During the 18th century, Louisbourg's people did not speak of their buildings as being of a particular design or style. Instead, they described their structures by their materials and construction types. Masonry construction was limited to public buildings and the houses and storehouses of the wealthiest residents. Masonry buildings had load-bearing walls of mass masonry, approximately two feet thick at the base and with shallow stone foundations. Walls were built of fieldstone or roughly-squared rubblestone, occasionally with fine-cut quoins (cornerstones) and door and window surrounds of imported limestone or sandstone.

Timber frame Timber frame buildings (charpente or colombage) were usually set on masonry foundations, sometimes above low cellars that were used as much-needed storehouses. The posts were usually spaced 3 to 6 feet apart, but were sometimes closely-spaced. Various infills were used in the spaces between posts; piquets or round logs were the most common. Made of fir or sometimes spruce, the piquets were often covered with clay-based or lime-based renders both inside and out, or finished on the exterior with wooden planks. Infills of stone and brick were also used (in colombage pierroté or briqueté); with closely-spaced posts, a clay-based daub or bousillage could be used, protected with whitewash.

Vertical log Vertical log (piquet) construction was common for more modest residences, storehouses and outbuildings.These were not necessarily crude or impermanent structures. As with log cabins in other parts of North America, a crudely-built piquet structure might be put up quickly to provide shelter when colonists first arrived, to be replaced by a more permanent, well-built piquet house in later years. Piquet structures continued to be built throughout the colony's history, often by residents who could have afforded other forms of construction, and many of them were long-lasting. There were many variations in this vernacular construction type, from round piquets set closely together in a trench in the ground and simply whitewashed (as at the Grandchamp Inn), to piquets hewn flat on the exterior and interior to support finishes such as wood planks or lath and plaster (as at the De Gannes House). The earliest piquet buildings at Louisbourg had exterior struts, as seen at the Des Roches House, but an ordinance was later passed against the use of struts within the town.

Pièce-sur-piècePièce-sur-pièce construction was also found at Louisbourg, but to a much lesser extent. This form of horizontal log construction had structural posts at corners and at regular intervals, and was common in Quebec in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is represented in the reconstruction of Louisbourg by the outbuilding behind the Beauséjour residence.

Eighteenth-century-timber framing can perhaps best be seen in the elaborate roof framing of the period. The steep French roof, based traditionally on the angle required for shedding water from thatched roofing, was supported on a system of trusses that were composed of many close-fitting elements such as king posts, collar ties, braces, tie beams, purlins and rafters. Requiring large, well-seasoned timbers and intricate joinery, such framing was a testament to the traditional skills and knowledge of Louisbourg's carpenters. Some good locations for viewing roof framing at Louisbourg are the Officer's Guardhouse at the Dauphin Gate, the Hangard d'artillerie and the attics of the De la Vallière storehouses.

Louisbourg was a major trading centre and its residents had access to trade goods from around the world. Despite the expense, many of Louisbourg's building materials were imported from France and New England. The extensive quantities of slate used to roof the public buildings of Louisbourg, for instance, had to be imported from France, since large-scale slate quarries had not yet been opened in this region. At Louisbourg, slate was applied over tightly-laid roofboards instead of the spaced laths common in Europe, to help keep wind-driven snow out of attics (these driving snowstorms, or poudreries, caused many complaints from early residents). Private buildings were roofed with wood shingles of white cedar or pine, with horizontal or vertical boards or, in the case of modest buildings, with sod, bark, or wood slabs. Lead was also imported from France and was an expensive commodity in limited supply; its use in buildings was restricted mainly to flashings for slate roofs and to the cames in leaded windows.

Timber for wood framing was produced locally and the pine found in Ile Royale was praised for its durability. Boards were pit-sawn locally in the early years of the settlement, but after the mid-1720's sawn boards for roofing and cladding were imported as "Boston boards" from New England, where sawmills made large-scale production possible. Wooden items such as doors, shutters and windows were made locally from pine, oak and other woods, although window glass was imported from France. Common sizes of blown-glass panes at Louisbourg were 62 by 72 inches and 72 by 82 inches. Windows were mainly paired or single casements, but some vertical sliding windows were also used. Exterior shutters were used on ground-floor windows for security, privacy and weather tightness, and interior shutters were found in some better-quality homes.

Masonry materials were also imported. Although fieldstone, beachstone and rough-cut stone of local production were used for the majority of wall-building, large quantities of limestone and sandstone were imported from France for more finished work. Marble was also imported for specialized items such as carved plaques and decorative fireplace surrounds. Bricks were largely imported from New England, after early attempts to produce durable bricks in the Sydney and St. Peter's areas proved unsuccessful. Local beach sand was used extensively in the production of mortars and was largely responsible for the difficulties in producing durable mortars, due to both its salt content and the rounded shape of the sand grains. Lime for mortars was produced at Louisbourg from limestone quarried on Ile Royale and burnt in lime kilns built close to the major construction sites at the Fortress, then slaked in nearby pits.

Although isolated by land, Louisbourg in the 18th century was a vital shipping centre and a major town. The energetic mercantile and sea-going culture of colonial France led to rapid development and constant change in the buildings of the town. The archaeological remains of the buildings and the extensive documentation pertaining to them continue to provide a valuable contribution to the knowledge of French Colonial architecture in North America.