New Brunswick

Talk turns to future of old Fredericton courthouse as construction starts on new one

As construction on Fredericton's new courthouse on King Street begins, discussions have started about what will happen to the old Justice Building and how to make sure the structure going back to the 1870s survives.

Ideas already percolating about downtown building that was once a teachers' college, then a high school

The Provincial Normal School in Fredericton before it burned in 1929. Part of the front was saved, and the structure was rebuilt. (New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick. Accession number: X11692)

As construction on Fredericton's new courthouse on King Street begins, discussions have started about what will happen to the old Justice Building and how to make sure the structure going back to the 1870s survives.

"The big thing for us is to ensure that it does have a future," Jeremy Mouat, president of the Fredericton Heritage Trust, said in an interview. 

Mouat was part of a panel discussion Wednesday night about the building on Queen Street, next to city hall. 

Fredericton South MLA David Coon hosted the virtual meeting. He called the building, which is still being used as a courthouse, the "structural anchor" to the "heart and soul of downtown Fredericton."

Housing would be the absolute wrong approach.- John Leroux, architect

Mouat was joined on the panel by historical architect John Leroux and Tom Morrison, principal engineer at Heritage Standing, a firm that specializes in historic buildings. 

All three agreed the Justice Building should be preserved and repurposed. 

The original stone and brick building was opened in 1876 as the Normal School, where teachers were trained. In 1929 that building burned down, but the columned front entrance was preserved and the school was rebuilt and opened again in 1931.

Eventually, it became the high school in Fredericton and in the 1970s was turned into a courthouse. 

What will become of Fredericton's old courthouse?

4 months ago
Duration 0:58
The city is getting a modern justice complex. In the meantime, the fate of the former Queen Street site is in limbo.

Mouat noted that Fredericton has a history of repurposing its older infrastructure.

He pointed to the roundhouse on Union Street, which has become a brewpub, the train station on York Street, which is now an NB Liquor store, and even the walking trails, which were transformed when the train tracks were removed. 

"I think letting it stand empty would mean letting it gradually decay, which would mean eventually tearing it down," Mouat said. 

"I think it's far too precious a part of the downtown streetscape to allow that to happen. … This is a precious part of our city that we need to reflect on and come up with a new purpose for the building."

Leroux called it an icon of downtown Fredericton and said the potential for the building is "enormous."

The old Justice Building in downtown Fredericton will stop being a courthouse after a new one opens in 2025. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

"It was built as this provincial iconic place where people would gather, it was a place of education, a place of communal energy, and education and inspiration and I think it's time for it to become that again."

Because of its history and its layout, the building should be a public space and not turned into a housing development, said Leroux. 

"Housing would be the absolute wrong approach," he said. "I'm all about adaptive reuse and making certain buildings housing if they can be, but this one does not want to be housing."

Doctor imagines community space for all

The province owns the building but hasn't indicated what it plans for it or how its future will be decided.

Several people at the meeting said they want to see it become that kind of public space. 

Dr. Sara Davidson, who operates the River Stone Recovery Centre, said her hope would be a community space accessible for people of all socioeconomic standings. 

"I would love to see something like a youth community theatre group to be able to be performing in one of those old courtrooms to sort of bring a lot of healing to parts of that building that have been hard on youth," she said. 

She talked about studio spaces for the craft college, a co-op wood shop space, and more space for newcomers. 

But creating anything out of the space will be challenging.

For years, the legal community has spoken out about the poor condition of the building and at one point jury trials had to be put on hold because of a problem elevator. 

Retired judge Bruce Noble cautioned the meeting about the issues with the building. 

"It is structurally problematic," he said. "It has a central elevator in the structure that is not accessible from the exterior going in the front doors. … That's a problem in any construction."

Problems surmountable to engineer

But Tom Morrison, a structural engineer who's worked on several older buildings, said planning around those challenges can make a big difference.

"It is a challenge, but when you're able to step back and plan and design and work it through it can be achieved," Morrison said.

"It does sound from a few of the conversations, there's going to need to be better planning on all of that. Nothing wouldn't get you to the goals everyone wants."

The new courthouse on King Street is expected to be finished in 2025. 

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