New Brunswick

Historic Saint John courthouse to be transformed into playhouse, performance centre

The historic Sydney Street courthouse in Saint John, which has sat vacant for years, will be transformed into a playhouse and performance centre with help from the federal government.

Saint John Theatre Company to take over space with $2.5M from Ottawa; Imperial Theatre gets $500K for reno

Saint John-Rothesay MP Wayne Long announced $2.5 million in federal funding for the Saint John Theatre Company and $500,000 for the Imperial Theatre on Tuesday morning. (Connell Smith/CBC)

The historic Sydney Street courthouse in Saint John, which has sat vacant for years, will be transformed into a playhouse and performance centre with help from the federal government.

The Saint John Theatre Company will receive $2 million from Canadian Heritage and $500,000 from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to renovate the former County Court House, Saint John-Rothesay MP Wayne Long announced on Tuesday.

The project could take up to another $4.5 million to complete, according to Stephen Tobias, the theatre company executive director.

He expects further funding from other sources within three or four months, he said, without divulging any details.

No timeline for opening curtain has been provided.

Meanwhile, the nearby Imperial Theatre will receive $250,000 from Canadian Heritage and $250,000 from ACOA to renovate its lobby, enhance accessibility, safety, energy efficiency and comfort for artists and the public, said Long.

"The Saint John region has long been a place where our cultures come together," he told a packed house at the company's production building on Princess Street.

"The arts and culture are a part of who we are as Canadians, and these investments will enable our city and our residents to continue to have access to high-quality performances and productions right here in our community."

The Sydney Street courthouse was built in the 1820s in late Georgian Neoclassical style to create the impression of order, grandeur, sobriety and sophistication. It was touted as a tourist attraction until it closed in 2013. (Julia Wright /CBC)

The stone courthouse, which faces onto King's Square in the city's uptown, was built between 1826 and 1829. It was declared a National Historic site in 1974.

The landmark building has been vacant since 2013, although the province has kept it heated.

The New Brunswick Historical Society has been pushing for years to save the building.

In 2016, the city turned down an option to buy it from the province.

In 2017, the Saint John Theatre Company commissioned a $38,000 feasibility study, funded in part by the city.

Stephen Tobias, executive director of the Saint John Theatre Company, said he expects the courthouse renovation project will cost as much as $7 million to complete. (Connell Smith/CBC)

Tobias described the old courthouse Tuesday as a prime location for expansion for the non-profit organization's   productions and training.

"With the support of Canadian Heritage and ACOA, we can now begin the process of developing this property into a vibrant cultural facility for the benefit of the SJTC and the cultural community at large," he said.

Plans include a live venue for an audience of 200 and a work space.

Tobias said the building is in good condition, but he expects it will cost up to $7 million to complete the renovations and bring the structure up to code.

Several members of the city's legal community welcomed the announcement.

This freestanding three-storey stone spiral staircase is the most impressive feature of the Sydney Street courthouse. (Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon/CBC)

"It's an important historical building for our city, and it's an important part of our heritage as a profession, as lawyers, David Shore said. 

"And also as a lover of the arts, I'm looking forward to seeing it in its new use."

The Imperial Theatre is also grateful for its funding, said executive director Angela Campbell.

"Public spaces like Imperial are relied upon more and more to offer alternative meeting and performance spaces for the community, and this refresh will help Imperial to meet these changing needs and to ensure our relevance and value to the city into the future," she said.

Long made the funding announcement on behalf of Pablo Rodriguez, the minister of Canadian heritage and multiculturalism, and Navdeep Bains, the minister responsible for ACOA. 

"Cultural spaces are essential for the development of the arts and culture; they help bring our communities together and enable artists to create in their own space," Rodriguez said in a statement.

Bains said the spending on arts infrastructure helps build competitive advantages, by encouraging world-class entertainment, promoting local talent and creating local jobs.

Long said the fact that Premier Blaine Higgs put plans for a new $100 million New Brunswick Museum on the waterfront on hold likely helped free up some funding for the theatre projects.

"It certainly didn't hurt," he said.

"I certainly will tell you that when the premier pulled the plug per se on the waterfront museum, I was very loud and active in Ottawa to make sure that heritage money that was committed to Saint John-Rothesay, albeit the New Brunswick Museum, stayed in Saint John-Rothesay."

With files from Connell Smith


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