the presence of the past
The Price family of Quebec City acquired the property in 1990 with the idea of developing a hotel. The site included three old buildings separated by a vacant lot used for parking. Soon after, municipal archaeologists approached the family with a proposal to realize an extensive dig on this location. Thus began a 15-year collaboration between Auberge Saint-Antoine, the City of Quebec, the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Laval University to dig, document, restore and finally to interpret and display the findings.
The digs, which stretched over a 10-year period, were coordinated with the development of the hotel, and ended just prior to the final phase of construction. While this property was considered to have great archaeological potential, both the archaeologists and the owners were astounded by the wealth of the findings.
Next came the documentation and restoration of the objects which took place at the Quebec Ministry of Culture’s laboratories. A team of experts developed sketches recreating the full object from which the artifact had come and a text explaining its function and historical context. As this process was taking place, the family realized the extraordinary opportunity these fragments of the city’s material past presented. The Price family’s passion for local history stretched back to the foundation of the Musée du Fort in 1965. This private museum, presenting the city’s military history, and the findings at the hotel site seemed a natural fit that continued this interest.
Daily interactions with the archaeologists during the digs further enhanced the common cause of all those involved in understanding of the city’s cultural heritage. As artifacts were unearthed, an idea formed on how best to share these finds with the public. Instead of ceding the responsibility for their display to the city, it was decided that the hotel would undertake to do so on site, and in lieu of relegating the artifacts to some corner of the building, they would spread them throughout as a central element of the design. For example, artifacts would be embedded and displayed inside bedside furniture or encased at the entry and used to name each room. As a way of showing the passage of time, each floor was assigned to a historical period. As in a dig, the lower the level, the earlier the period and all the artifacts would be drawn from the cumulative levels of the excavation.
Since the city had undertaken the task of digging, documenting and preserving, ownership
belonged to the municipality while the right to display artifacts of its choosing fell to the Auberge
Saint-Antoine. These were selected for both their visual appeal and their historical significance.
Rare and well-preserved items were also favoured. Since it was decided to group the
collection by period in chronological order it was important that artifacts from all periods be
equally represented. The City and Quebec Ministry of Culture enthusiastically endorsed the
concept of displaying the collection at the Auberge as it gave the public ready, if unexpected,
access to a material panorama of the city’s cultural past.
The first floor spans the period 1632 to 1702 and is considered to be the era of Charles Aubert
de la Chesnaye, company agent, businessman and member of the Conseil Souverain. Among
the objects attributed to this level are a French glass bottle, some wrought-iron hardware and a
magnificent French deep dish made of coarse earthenware all dated between 1690 and 1725.
The second floor is related to the Dauphine Battery (1725-1760) when Jean Maillou lived
there. He was a mason, land surveyor, contractor, King’s architect and clerk for the chief road
inspector. A pitcher made of Rhenish stoneware, a French demijohn and flask and a wroughtiron
hoe are all thought to have been among his personal possessions.
The third floor contains artifacts from the period when the British took to the river front
in the Lower Town. Among others, the property belonged in part to Hugh Finlay (1760-1795).
Born in Scotland in 1730 he was a merchant, Deputy Postmaster General of British North
America and a politician. Objects that he either imported for resale or owned himself included
an English dish and plate, earthenware and fine stoneware, English stemware and a saucer and
dish of Delftware of approximately the same date.
The fourth floor displays items from the New Wharf period in the time of John Chillas (1795
-1825), another Scot who was a master cooper (barrel maker) and merchant. From his time come
English dishes of earthenware, glass snuff bottles, British clay pipes and English stemware.
The fifth floor is home to a collection from the time of the Hunt family (1825-1880). Hunt
was a master sail maker, trader, civil servant and politician. The room styled « Capitaine » simulates
the type of accommodation Hunt would have afforded his captains when they arrived from
Europe. From this era the Auberge has culled an English Davenport dish of earthenware and a
decorative glass vase. The sixth floor marks the end of the import-export function of this area
of the port, after which the buildings housed the Vallerand store for about a hundred years.
Common everyday objects such as simple clothes pins were found in the thousands. Among
the rarer and more historically significant items is an intriguing and now seldom used item
called a stoup, or holy water font, with the image of a crucifix. Made of French faience, it was
among the items of social and spiritual significance found among the shards. Another object of
historical significance is a broken plate decorated with the figure of George III (1760-1820)
King of Great Britain and Ireland dated 1761, marking his marriage to Charlotte Sophia of
Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The plate is a rare surviving example of Lambeth Delftware. It shows the
monarch in profile wearing the Order of the Garter. This piece has been reproduced on the
modern day dishes used by the hotel’s restaurant.
A large number of figural clay pipes were found in the digs which today make amusing and
anecdotal references indirectly to historical figures and events. Among them is a pipe impressed
with a shallow relief image of a kneeling soldier, probably from the Napoleonic era. While there
are no stamps or other maker’s marks on the pipe, the stance of the soldier depicted on the clay
is an archetypal symbol of that period.
During the summer of 1759, while under siege by British forces, Quebec City was heavily
bombarded and, as an essential part of the city’s defences, the Dauphine gun battery was among
the targets. This explains why so many cannonballs have been dug up on the site, some even in
their original impact crater. Two extremely rare pieces in the collection, and today placed sideby-
side, are a small French cast-iron cannon and a cannonball embedded still in part of a wooden
structure. The interior of the cannon has been blocked so that the weapon could not be used
by the British invaders. Later it was used as a mooring post at the waterfront. It is one of the very
few French cannons presently on view in the city.
For visitors to Quebec, many of whom come to the city for its rich history and vibrant
French culture, the artifacts and archaeological story of the Auberge illustrate directly the uses
of the past in the present. Their everyday nature is compatible with the daily routines in a hotel
and within this context they bring life to history. In fact, the integration of artifacts and “digs”
(in the British sense) was instrumental in Auberge Saint-Antoine receiving the city’s highest
design and architecture awards in 2005 as well as a special prize granted by the jury for the
quality of the overall project and its commitment to protecting and enhancing the archaeological
heritage of the historic district.
City politicians and administrators have seized on this hotel-museum format as an innovative
example of how the public and private sectors can collaborate effectively. Proudest of all
are the city archaeologists for whom the Auberge Saint-Antoine is an obligatory stop in any city
tour for visiting colleagues, many of whom can only dream of such a collaboration.
For the Auberge Saint-Antoine as a hotel, material history comes alive as a unique and
living signature built into the fabric of the structure as a permanent sign of the city and its
inhabitants. The project and its use of archaeological findings highlights the Price family’s
continuing recognition and support for Quebec’s cultural history, begun more than thirty
years ago with the Musée du Fort, and its further contributions along the way to the endeavours
of Archéo-Québec. It also serves as a model and example of private and public cooperation
to promote the uses of the past in a contemporary society in which diversity, despite all its
attractions and benefits, can lose compass north and the historical pole by which any collective
identity must be charted if it is to be successful.
Lucy and Evan Price are co-owners of the Auberge Saint-Antoine.
A stoup, or holy water font with the image of a crucifix
View of Quebec City’s Lower Town with the Auberge Saint-Antoine in the foreground
Photographs courtesy Auberge Saint-Antoine