New Brunswick

Act 2: Saint John Theatre Company hopes to revive old courthouse

On Monday night, the Saint John Theatre Company's Stephen Tobias will go before common council to pitch using the building as a theatre school.
The 191-year-old Sydney Street courthouse was promoted as a tourist attraction until it closed in 2013. It houses a unique, three-storey circular staircase and is a designated National Historic Site. (Julia Wright /CBC)

Saint John's Sydney Street courthouse is in the spotlight once again, this time because a local theatre company would like to move in. 

On Monday night, the company's Stephen Tobias will go before common council to pitch the idea of using the building as a theatre school.

The theatre company is trying to secure funding for a feasibility study to determine whether a school would be suitable for the former courthouse, a National Historic Site since 1974.

The company will ask for $19,000 from the city to cover half the cost of a $38,000 feasibility study.

The courthouse is one of the oldest buildings in Saint John but is vacant and becoming rundown.

Last year, the city had a chance to buy the former courthouse from the New Brunswick government for $25,000. Council didn't want it, although people trying to save the landmark on King Square thought it would make a good city hall.

The proposed theatre study has the support of lawyer John Barry, chair of  the New Brunswick Historical Society, who says the city has a "legal obligation" to take possession of the site.

"It's an absolute necessity, this being the crown jewel in Saint John, that we continue to have it."

What they add to the economic and cultural side of Saint John is outstanding.- John Barry, New Brunswick Historical Society

The 191-year-old courthouse, with its three-storey circular staircase, was a tourist attraction until it closed in 2013. 

"Our prime draw," Barry said of the city, "is our architecture. … I don't think if we lived in Quebec City or Montreal we'd be talking about the demolition of heritage property or allowing them to deteriorate in such a way they have to be taken down."  

Strong interest

Barry said the courthouse would be in good hands with the theatre company.

"The theatre company has a proven track record in our city of success," he said. "What they add to the economic and cultural side of Saint John is outstanding."   

Coun. John Mackenzie said the move would be a good opportunity for the theatre company, Saint John and the old courthouse.

"This project is going to provide a minimum of 10 new jobs and more productions," he said. "It's going to bring more entertainment to Saint John and to New Brunswick, so it falls into our growth plan."

Groundwork begun

For the project to move forward, Barry said, everything has to be done in phases.

The theatre company has taken engineers through the old building and asked architects to prepare a proposal of what's needed.

"These all show not a passing interest but a very active interest," said Barry.

The study would determine whether the building is suitable for a theatre school and what the costs would be.

It's the only proper way to approach it but they are extremely interested and extremely keen."

With files from Information Morning Saint John, Julia Wright