New Brunswick

Theatre company unveils design plans for historic Saint John courthouse

The Saint John Theatre Company reveals its design plan for the historic former Sydney Street courthouse.

Modern, three-storey addition will be added to back of building

The three-storey, modern-design addition incorporates an opaque-glass façade. (Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company)

The Saint John Theatre Company plans to put a three-storey addition on the former county courthouse on King's Square while still preserving much of the historic building's architecture and features.

The group unveiled its design plans for the almost 200-year-old building on Friday afternoon.

The addition will be added to the back of the site, leaving the most visible portions of the iconic building, along Sydney and King Street East, largely unchanged. 

Although modern in design, the new portion incorporates some of the architectural features of the existing building, said  lead architect Melissa Wakefield of EXP Architects. 

It also creates a new, bigger entrance and lobby from King Street East. New elevators and stairways will also be incorporated in the new section. 

The old courtroom, where jury trials were held before 2013, will be transformed into the main theatre space. 

A floating mezzanine will be created to increase seating capacity to 220, Wakefield explained during the design unveiling, which was done via Zoom on Friday.  

Lead architect Melissa Wakefield of EXP Architects said the new addition will 'light up like a marquee' at night. (Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company)

"The mezzanine literally floats in the courtroom space, suspended from the ceiling above, therefore ensuring none of the character-defining elements of the courtroom, such as the terracotta columns and mouldings, will be impacted," she said. 

The project has been four years in the making, Stephen Tobias, the executive director of the Saint John Theatre Company, said.

Tobias said the group's existing theatre on Princess Street was usually booked solid and often not big enough. 

"With the growth in programming, we've also become aware of a facility dead zone between the 100-seat BMO studio and the 900-seat Imperial Theatre," he said. "That needs to be filled."

The project will also allow multiple performances to take place at the same time, said Tobias.

He said the theatre company first approached the province in 2016 and finally took over ownership of the building in early March 2020. 

This is what the new addition could look like on the King Street East side of the old Sydney Street courthouse. (Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company)

Tobias said the pandemic "actually gave us the blessing of time." 

He said the group was able to strengthen the design and "future-proof" the project. 

The resulting design plans will double the "existing footprint of the building."

National Historic Site

Built between 1826 and 1829, the Sydney Street courthouse is a National Historic Site. 

Saint John city council held its meetings there until 1879, and most recently, the building was used for Court of Queen's Bench matters, including jury trials, but it has empty since 2013, when the new Saint John Law Courts opened. 

It's best known for its marble floors and a unique, free-standing, circular stone staircase — components that will be preserved in the expansion and renovation project, said Wakefield. 

A drawing showing an aerial view of the proposed design. (Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company)

The three-storey addition, however, will be a sharp departure from the classic stone look of the existing structure. 

"This concept, which we dubbed the classical shadowbox, results in a dynamic façade, unlike anything Saint John has ever seen," said Wakefield. 

"The resultant concept is a playful, expressive façade that will light up like a marquee at night. Here, patrons are cast members in a life-size theatre stage that is the façade, creating a giant shadowbox theatre at the street."

Tobias said the whole project should take about two years to complete. The unknown, however, is when the project will begin. He said it first has to go through heritage and building codes reviews. 

This illustration shows the architectural design components. (Submitted by the Saint John Theatre Company)

The exact price tag of the project is also unknown at the moment, said Tobias, since those reviews could result in changes to the design that could have an impact on the total construction costs. 

In 2019, the federal government awarded the project $2.5 million through Heritage Canada and ACOA.

The price tag for the whole project was previously estimated at $7 million. 


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