Stepping through the arched wooden doorway into the white marble halls of the former Sydney Street courthouse, it’s hard to believe that the future of the Saint John building was in jeopardy less than a decade ago.
Built in the 1820s, the imposing stone building, originally designed by local architect John Cunningham, has a range of national, provincial and municipal heritage designations.
One of the first public buildings erected in Saint John, according to architect Melissa Wakefield, it survived the Great Fire of 1877 and another fire in 1919.
It housed infamous criminal cases from the 1869 trial of Black River Road murderer John Munroe to that of serial killer Noel Winters in the mid-eighties.
The building was no longer needed following the construction of the new courthouses at Peel Plaza in 2013. It seemed doubtful that the building would find a buyer.
The city had a chance to take ownership of the building, but rejected it in a council vote in 2016.
Within the new vision for the old Sydney Street courthouse in Saint John A national, provincial and municipal heritage site in Saint John is receiving what may be the most substantial renovation in its 200-year history.
Now — after being empty since 2013 — it is undergoing what may be its most ambitious overhaul in nearly 200 years.
The Saint John Theater Company officially took ownership of the former courthouse in March 2020, announcing its intention to transform it into a modern performance space. Design illustrations for the building’s exterior were unveiled in January last year.
“Of course, on March 13, 2020, we closed due to COVID,” said Saint John Theater Company director Stephen Tobias. “It’s been a really interesting process, keeping this project alive, moving forward and active during the two and a half years we’ve been dealing with COVID disruptions.”
The vision for the interior of the building is being made public for the first time this week.
EXP Architects’ new projects show a theater with more than 220 seats, ticket office, café and other spaces for presentations and rehearsals of various sizes.
The scope of work calls for a significant expansion to the building’s footprint from 10,000 square feet of living space to approximately 25,000 square feet.
The main entrance will be moved from Sydney Street to the modern King Street East addition – whose façade will light up like a marquee at night, allowing patrons’ shadows to be visible, shadowbox style, from the street.
“Everything you see on the King Street East Side has a deliberately modern approach [which] I think speaks to the building’s future use as a theater and allows the courthouse across from King’s Square to be the courthouse,” Wakefield said.
‘Future-proofing’ the design
The last few years have been “an opportunity to really push the design envelope,” according to Tobias.
“We’ve changed designs a lot because of COVID. We realized we’d have to future-proof the building for the next health-related disruption that might occur,” he said.
The yet-to-be-named space will contain ample space to house the Atlantic Repertory Company, which provides paid experience and opportunities for young, emerging theater artists with ties to Atlantic Canada – as well as production and performance space for rental clients such as Imperial Theatre, Symphony New Brunswick, Theater New Brunswick, Atlantic Ballet, Connection Danceworks, New Brunswick Youth Orchestra and others.
The Saint John Theater Company has won several Heritage Development Board awards for its rehabilitation of the BMO Theater at 112 Princess Street, a dilapidated historic building in which the company has invested an estimated $2 million.
The courthouse has two notable stone staircases: a spiral staircase and a single circular staircase that featured prominently in tourist brochures before the building closed in 2013.
The circular staircase — which, unlike a spiral staircase, has no central support column — is “one of the few freestanding, self-supporting staircases in Canada,” Wakefield said. “Its engineering and construction are a bit mysterious.”
Legend has it that “when these stairs were built, the judge didn’t trust them,” said Tobias.
“He had them bring all the prisoners from the prison across the way, and he put them on the stairs and they jumped up and down for a while – just to make sure they were safe. And then he got comfortable using the stairs. I don’t know if it’s true, but I loved the story”, said Tobias.
The stairway will open to the public when the building is complete, he said.
Construction expected to start in spring
According to the latest estimates, the courthouse project will cost around $17.9 million.
“The hope is that we start construction in the spring,” Tobias said – though given supply chain disruptions and labor shortages – that schedule is subject to change.
“If we start construction in the spring, we’re looking at a two-year timeline for opening.”
Wakefield, who received a Saint John 2021 Heritage Award for the courthouse project, looks forward to what the completion of the project will bring to Saint Johners.
“I hope they’re inspired. I hope they’re excited to see what’s possible – and I really hope this sets a new precedent for merging modern architectural design with heritage,” she said.