It was with tears in his eye that Lester Toupin woke up on April 14, the day after the Maestra awards ceremony which crowns heritage artisans. The day before, he was rewarded for his restoration of the mosaic floor of the old town hall of Maisonneuve: the work of a lifetime. “All the way to get me there… it’s really a great recognition for me,” says the masonry craftsman, still shaken by these honors.
Built between 1910 and 1912, the Beaux-Arts style building, converted into a library, has regained its luster. It is part of the Ancienne-Cité-de-Maisonneuve heritage site, which once included a town hall, a market, a fire station and a public bath and gymnasium. The complex is deployed in the quadrilateral between Ontario and Notre-Dame Est streets, Pie-IX Boulevard and Morgan Avenue.
A budget of $43 million was granted for the restoration of the old town hall, which involved six teams of craftsmen under the supervision of architect Marianne Lacroix. Lester Toupin had the mandate to restore the polychrome mosaic of the central hall, a major project that required meticulousness and know-how, if only for the restoration of the coat of arms of the City of Maisonneuve.
To achieve this, the craftsman enlisted the skills of Martine Bonin and Geneviève Gamache, two glaziers who are members of the Conseil des métiers d’art du Québec (CMAQ) who had the tools and knowledge to cut and assemble the impressive quantity of small ceramic pieces. Sixty square meters of surface were restored, seven of which had to be completely redone to form a fresco identical to the original. The project, which has just been completed, will have required 16 months of work.
In four decades of practice, the craftsman’s trowel has brought to life more than one architectural artefact. Lester Toupin was first a smoker, in the original sense of the term, which evokes the one whose job is to convey the smoke where it must go… without any desire to throw dust in the eyes! In concrete terms, he maintained and repaired old fireplaces.
The craftsman recounts what led him there: “When I was young, my father maintained the oil furnaces that heated our apartments in Montreal, just like his own father who traded in coal and the maintenance of furnaces during the crisis of the 1930s.” The son first wanted to move away from the family trajectory by studying special education, then by founding Le Bouclier, a rehabilitation center for physical disabilities still active, which has several ramifications today.
However, a job loss will cause him to deviate from his trajectory and return to his first love. “I became a chimney sweep, then slowly I understood that you had to repair chimneys and not just clean them. His father showed him the craft. However, it is from his mother that he gets his artisan side. She was the one who introduced him to building stone walls, which she had learned from her father who erected dams to artificially raise the water level in order to drive wood.
“For three summers I rolled rocks and built retaining walls with her,” he recalls. My mother was an artist who did anything with her hands. She was creating clothes and designing costumes for Muriel Millard’s troupe, so at 16 I was sorting and assembling sequins on corsets! One thing leading to another, Lester Toupin reconnected with this artistic fiber and began to restore old-fashioned fireplaces, before opening up to heritage restoration and founding his artisanal masonry business.
The vast majority of masons work according to an industrial method. Very few do it the old-fashioned way and know how to work with the lime mortars used before industrialization, says Lester Toupin. “Gradually, we started repairing old houses with modern methods. Most of the time, it doesn’t mix well and it doesn’t last long. We are putting it back as it was before and respecting the original building. “Working the old way often involves starting from raw materials and even fetching stones from the field if necessary, but this conservation operation makes it possible to preserve the past for future generations.
It was to protect the old building trades that he returned to school in the 1990s, in orientation sciences. “I wanted to define what a traditional mason is, which is not the same job as the bricklayer-mason that the Commission de la construction du Québec talks about. His master’s degree allowed the integration of building craftsmen into the Conseil des métiers d’art in 2010 and the establishment of an attestation of college studies program with nine options.
Since he’s not one to twiddle his thumbs, Lester Toupin obtained his license to practice psychology alongside his activities as a building tradesman and began his practice in a firm… while running his masonry business. every day between 7 a.m. and noon, before listening to his patients. A double life.
At 70, he willingly hands over the reins of the business to his son, who has followed in his footsteps. “It gives me a lot of freedom. I no longer have to carry everything on my shoulders. At the same time, I don’t want to stop working. I like it too much. “He pushes the wheel and reserves exceptional contracts such as that of the restoration of the hall of the town hall. “This work is consecration. It is my most accomplished and aesthetic work. It touches my heart to watch the result. Lester Toupin says he relishes the happiness of having entered a new period of his life… the so-called golden age!