Québec has a long and proud history of electricity production. In 1884, the Dufferin Terrase in Québec City was lit up by 34 arc lights powered by a small plant at nearby Montmorency Falls. The success of this demonstration and some cunning political manoeuvering led to the quick electrification of public lighting in the province’s cities. In 1892, electric tramways started rattling through the streets of Montréal, which were lit by brand new electric lights. By the 1920s, Québec’s waters were powering a hundred hydroelectric plants and ever larger projects were being launched.
At the same time, this lucrative new market was becoming increasingly consolidated, with a handful of private companies, mostly backed by US investors, buying their way to an ever larger share of the pie. Having divided up the market among themselves, they were able to establish local monopolies, impose heavy prices and earning the universal scorn of the population. The economic crisis of the early 1930s helped fuel this resentment and finally prompted an official enquiry that concluded on the need for more oversight and financial transparency from the power companies. The latter fought back and repeatedly refused to open their books, leading premier Adélard Godbout to move towards nationalization. On April 14, 1944, the Commission hydroélectrique de Québec was established, immediately expropriating the largest power companies and placing them under the control of a new state institution, Hydro-Québec. In the postwar period, Hydro-Québec embarked on a series of dam projects of epic proportions. The engineering and economic prowess of the public power company became a key element in Québec’s nationalist expression as it wrangled more autonomy and agency.
Built in 1958 after a design by Camille Chevalier, Hydro-Québec’s first in-house architect, the Salk substation served the village of Sault-au-Récollet, which would subsequently be absorbed by the city of Montréal.
Hydro-Québec moved its equipment to another location in 1972, planning to turn the building into a training centre. This was however abandoned and in 1977, the lot was purchased by the city to install a new library.
The transformation led by Saia, Nantel & Roy mostly kept the original volumes, filling what I think was the transformer hall with shelves topped by a mezzanine, but altered the street-facing elevation, replacing the modernist facade with a brown bay of windows more in line with late 1970s design.
I was unable to figure out if the row of arches separating the two spaces was original to the 1958 design or part of the 1977 conversion.
With thanks to Jean-Paul Guiard for his help researching this article and to the Hydro-Québec Archives for providing documentation and permission to include the historical photographs above.
- Hydro-Québec. Histoire de l’électricité au Québec.
- Guiard, Jean-Paul (2019). Histoire de la Bibliothèque Henri-Bourassa, Montréal-Nord. Société d’histoire et de généalogie de Montréal-Nord. October 2019.
- Evans-Brown, Sam and McCarthy, Hannah (2017). Powerline. Outside/In podcast. November 2017.
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!