Description of Historic Place
The New Québec Custom House is a Neoclassical, stone building with a pedimented portico and central dome. Its exterior detailing exhibits a strong Italianate influence. The Custom House is located in the old port area of the city of Québec. Now dominated by residential and recreational uses, the port area sits on a flat shelf of land known as Pointe-à-Carcy, below the old city of Québec, and is highly visible from the river. The formal recognition consists of the building on its legal property.
The New Québec Custom House was designated a national historic site because, conceived in a rich Italianate style, it reflects Québec’s exceptional growth as the great centre of St. Lawrence Valley timber trade and wooden ship construction.
The New Québec Custom House is a fine example of a Neoclassical public building enhanced with a rich layer of Italianate detailing. One of many public buildings designed by prominent Toronto architect William Thomas during the mid 19th century, it features his signature decorative touches: heavily vermiculated stonework, and sculptured, anthropomorphic keystones. Although parts of the building’s exterior were altered following major fires in 1864 and 1909, and the interior was completely redone in 1910, the Custom House retains its basic Neoclassical form and features, along with the Italianate stylistic definition that typifies its era and its architect. The early-20th-century, Beaux-Arts interior is carefully integrated with the Neoclassical exterior.
The New Québec Customs House was built as part of the mid-19th-century expansion of the customs system. It is the largest extant example of the many new facilities built during the 1850s as part of the reorganization of the customs function. Its scale and location reflect the continuing importance of customs as the largest single source of government revenue during the 19th century.
The construction of the New Québec Customs House reflects the prosperity of Québec at mid-century, its position as one of two alternating capitals of Canada, and its continuing importance as a major port on the St. Lawrence River. Despite growing competition from Montreal, Québec remained the major Canadian port for the timber trade in the 19th century, and the ship-building industry continued to operate as a mainstay of the Québec economy. The construction of a fine, new customs house was justified by the large volume of port traffic at Québec.
Source: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, 1972.
Key elements which contribute to the heritage value of the New Québec Custom House include:
- its Neoclassical form, evident in its balanced, symmetrical composition with a modified Greek cross plan, central portico with pediment supported on Doric columns, and central dome;
- its Italianate stylistic influences, evident in the heavily accentuated round-arched windows with voussoirs and projecting keystones, as well as the use of segmental arches, and richly textured vermiculated masonry;
- the composition and detailing of the side and rear façades, echoing the long front façade, including pilasters and pediments;
- features typical of the work of William Thomas, including carved, bearded heads as keystones at door and window openings, and vermiculated stonework on the first storey;
- the high quality of its exterior stonework, including carved head keystones, and the use of smooth cut stone, and vermiculated stonework;
- features dating to reconstruction in 1910-11, including the attic storey, the oculus windows in the pediments, the low-profile dome and the structural and fire safety measures such as the stone and steel drum of the dome, the steel and concrete floors and frame;
- its Beaux-Arts inspired interior, including surviving cove moulding, marble door-trim, surviving countertops and dadoes, wooden window and door architraves with classical detailing, arched openings, classical columns, and coffered plaster ceilings;
- its location in the old port area of Québec;
- viewscapes of the customs house to and from the river.