QUEBEC'S CHÂTEAU DISNEY
By RICHARD CARREÑO
[WC News Service]
|Gare du Palais|
Every visitor to this historic city, founded in 1608 and one of the oldest in North America, can't miss the monumental, turreted structure that looms over St. Lawrence River. In fact, the Château Frontenac almost swallows whole the city's legendary Haut-Ville, dominating the skyscape as the iconic symbol of this capital of Quebec Province and the indisputable heart of French Canada.
Iconic. Also ironic.
First, the Frontenac, despite its vague architectural conceit to Loire Valley antecedents, isn't really a château. (It's a hotel). In addition, the building's founding was rooted in a very American instinct -- capital and economic growth. Its owner, the Canadian Pacific Railway, wanted to expand and centre tourism and commerce in what still a riparian backwater, and hired American staritect Bruce Price, who was then making the rounds in Anglo-Canadian business circles, to do the job. Historic? Hardly. Most telling of all, at least by local standards, the edifice isn't really that old. Construction began only in 1893.
Nonetheless, the Frontenac is a remarkable building. It's sort of like a functional Disneyland structure -- minus Tinkerbell.
The hotel is never more appreciated than when it's visited jointly with its lesser-known sister 'palace,' also a Norman-styled pile that doubles as the city's main train station, the Palais du Gare. Unfortunately, the station, for most visitors here, gets overlooked -- though hiding in plain site. (Its location, in lesser-visited Basse-Ville doesn't help. Nor, the fact that most tourists drive here, or arrive by river cruise).
Given that the hotel has its roots in railroad development, it's not surprising that the Gare du Palais is also vintage Price, another Canadian Pacific-commissioned work also styled in the architect's signature pastiche of French nostalgia. His idea, presumably, of a medieval castle. Unofficially, the look was dubbed 'Châteauesque.'
In context, there's nothing odd about a railroad extending its franchise to real estate. Always has been the case. In Britain. In the Golden Spike history of railroad expansion in the American West.
What was different in the Canadian symbiosis of rail and realty was the fabrication by Canadian Pacific grandees -- interpreted by architects like Price -- of a fabulist Frenchness that stamped Quebec and other Quebec Province railheads as quasi Gallic outposts -- and as authentic as a $3 dollar bill, er, maybe a Quebec kiss. Montreal's Windsor Station, also designed by Price, is another ersatz bisou.
Price (1845-1903) was prolific, despite a truncated life. (He died, at 57, in Paris). His work extends from Canada to New York and New Jersey, and on to Yale. He was the chief architect for the swells who, in the early of the last century, were developing Tuxedo Park into a posh New York suburb. Hotchkiss liked him enough, in the 19th century, to have him design the school's main building in 1892. In the 20th century, his legend, alas, waned, and the main building was razed in 1970.
All in all, my favourite Price structure is the Gare du Palais. Its soaring interior is a standout, differing significantly from the Frontenac, where the interior, in all honesty, is bland and unremarkable. Moreover, I like the ring to its name. Akin to sporting a Gare d'Orsay vibe. Besides, the gare is Price's only 'palace.' (The Frontenac is only a prosaic château, after all).
Both buildings have a shared history. Over the years, the hotel has been the home away from home of numerous luminaries, including King George VI, Princess Grace, Charles de Gaulle, Alfred Hitchcock (he made a film here) Ronald Reagan, and Charles Lindbergh. Perhaps most notably the Frontenac was the site, in a 1943 and in 1944, of joint Anglo-American conferences that led up to the D-Day invasion of France. FDR, Churchill, and Canadian Prime Minster William Lyon MacKenzie King attended. (De Gaulle didn't. If you wonder why, refer to your history books).
Of course, for the most part -- at least for early-day residents of the Frontenac -- their visits were also routed through the Gare du Palais. Many were probably were blowing kisses -- never mind the kind -- on their departure.