When you walk through the wooden doors and white marble halls of the old Sydney Street courthouse, it’s hard to believe that the future of the Saint John building was in jeopardy less than a decade ago. ago.
Built in the 1820s, the impressive stone building, originally designed by local architect John Cunningham, holds important national, provincial and municipal heritage designations.
One of the first public buildings built in Saint John, according to architect Melissa Wakefield, it survived the Great Fire of 1877 and another fire in 1919.
It featured infamous criminal cases from the 1869 trial of Black River Road killer John Munroe to modern-day serial killer Noel Winters in the mid-eighties.
The building was no longer needed after the construction of the new law courts at Peel Plaza in 2013. It seemed doubtful that the building would find a buyer.
The city had an opportunity to take control of the building, but rejected it in a 2016 council election.
Inside a new look at the old Sydney Street courthouse in Saint JohnA national, provincial and municipal heritage site in Saint John is getting the biggest renovation in its 200-year history.
Now — after sitting empty since 2013 — it is undergoing what could be its most significant renovation in nearly 200 years.
The Saint John Theater Company officially took over the old courthouse in March 2020, announcing its intention to transform it into a modern performance space. Design drawings for the building’s exterior were opened in January last year.
“Of course on March 13, 2020, we closed because of COVID,” said Saint John Theater Company director Stephen Tobias. “It’s been a very interesting process, keeping this project alive, moving forward, and active during the two and a half years that we’ve been dealing with the disruptions of COVID.”
An interior view of the building was released for the first time this week.
New designs by EXP Architects feature 220+ theater seats, box office, café, and other performance and rehearsal spaces of various sizes.
The workplace requires a significant expansion in building space from 10,000 square feet of usable space to approximately 25,000 feet.
The main entrance will be moved from Sydney Street to a modern addition off King Street East — the front of which will light up like a marquee at night, making customers’ shadows visible from the street .
“Everything you see on King Street East Side takes an intentional modern approach [that] I think speaks to the future use of the building as a theater, and allows the council to facing King’s Square to become a courthouse,” said Wakefield.
‘Future-proofing’ the design
The past few years have been “an opportunity to raise the bar for design,” according to Tobias.
“We changed the plans a lot because of COVID. We realized that we will have to future-proof the building for the next health-related disruption that may occur,” he said.
The yet-to-be-named location will house the Atlantic Repertory Company, which offers paid exposure and opportunities to young playwrights with ties to Atlantic Canada — as well as space to produce and work for rental clients such as Imperial Theatre, Symphony. New Brunswick, Theater New Brunswick, Atlantic Ballet, Connection Danceworks, New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, and more.
The Saint John Theater Company has won multiple Heritage Development Board awards for its renovation of the BMO Theater at 112 Princess Street, a derelict building in which the company invested nearly $1 million. two of them.
The hall has two notable staircases: the spiral staircase, and the unique circular staircase that appeared in tourist books before the building closed in 2013.
The spiral staircase — unlike a spiral staircase, has no central supporting part — is “one of the few independent, self-contained staircases in Canada,” Wakefield said. “Its engineering and construction is amazing.”
The report says “when these stairs were first built, the judge didn’t trust them,” Tobias said.
“He had them bring all the prisoners from the prison across the road, and had them all stand on the stairs and jump up and down for a while – to make sure they were safe. Then he felt comfortable using stairs. I don’t know if it’s true, but I love this story,” said Tobias.
He said that the stairs will be opened to the public when the building is finished.
Construction expected to start in spring
According to the latest estimates, the council project will cost $17.9 million.
“The hope is that we will start construction in the spring,” Tobias said – however, due to supply disruptions and labor shortages – that time could change.
“If we start construction in the spring, we’re looking at a two-year opening.”
Wakefield, who received the 2021 Saint John Heritage Award for the council’s design, is looking forward to what the project’s completion will bring to Saint Johners.
“I hope they feel inspired. I hope they’re excited to see what’s possible – and I hope it sets a new example of combining modern architecture with heritage,” he said.