New Brunswick

'High-end offices': major renos for historic Saint John building

Cooke Aquaculture plans to renovate the historic 146-year-old building that once housed Shaarei Zedek Synagogue in Saint John — but it's going to take time to do it right.

Seafood giant Cooke Aquaculture continues to expand its footprint north of Union Street

The interior of the former Shaarei Zedek synagogue as it appeared in 2008, the year the city bought it. Cooke Aquaculture announced plans this week to renovate the 1871 structure into high-end office space. (Lloyd Goldsmith)

Cooke Aquaculture plans to take its time renovating the historic building that once housed Shaarei Zedek synagogue in Saint John, according to Nell Halse, the company's vice-president of communications.

"The building, once it's restored, will be high-end offices," Halse said. "It will be done well."

The former synagogue was originally built in 1871 as a Calvinist church but was bought by the city's Jewish community in 1919.

The two-storey, Neo-Gothic brick structure, which sits on the corner of Wellington Row and Carleton Street, was decommissioned as a house of worship in November 2008 and taken over by the city.

In September, city council gave up trying to find a buyer to save the 146-year-old building and declared it surplus, which meant it could be torn down.

The synagogue was decommissioned as a house of worship in 2008. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"This is a pretty big purchase for us," Halse said. "We took a number of years to renovate the building on Wellington Row. We expect it will take a little while to finalize the plans, see the restoration complete and have people working in the building."

Changes north of Union Street

In 2016, the global seafood giant — which employs over 3,000 employees worldwide at Kelly Cove Salmon, True North Salmon, GMG Fish Services Ltd., Shoreland Transport, and Charlotte Feeds & Northeast Nutrition — invested approximately $750,000 in its new global headquarters at 40 Wellington Row while keeping its headquarters in Charlotte County.

"We totally gutted that building and it took a number of years," said Halse, "but it's beautiful office space today."

Cooke Aquaculture's new global headquarters at 40 Wellington Row is directly across the street from the synagogue building. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The company hasn't yet made public a timeline or expected costs for the synagogue renovations.

"We are fortunate to have good people in the company who did a fabulous job with the building we're in now on Wellington Row," Halse said.

The synagogue is a "beautiful, historic building with a lot of unique qualities," Halse said. "We saw it as an opportunity to acquire [it] and have it ready for growth within our company."

Original features preserved

Once the deal officially closes, Halse said, Cooke's first order of business will be to secure the site and remove "hazardous materials."

Although the building has remained heated at the city's expense since the synagogue closed in 2008, substantial renovations will be required. 

"We'll sit down with professional consultants to work out what the exact design it going to be," Halse said. "We have some ideas and preliminary plans, but nothing is cast in stone yet."

A smaller two-storey, red-brick Georgian building attached to the former synagogue and facing Wellington Row was used at one time as a Hebrew school and now operates as a daycare. 

Many of the synagogue's original architectural features will be preserved, Halse said.

"We are fortunate to have good people in the company who did a fabulous job with the building we're in now on Wellington Row," Halse said.

The interior of the Shaarei Zedek synagogue circa 1940. The pews, and some of the historically significant features, have since been removed. (Submitted by Katherine Biggs-Craft)

With several other high-profile buildings on Wellington Row on the cusp of demolition, the response to the news that the long-vacant synagogue will be saved has been overwhelmingly positive. 

"We certainly have had some very positive feedback already from people in the city, council, the mayor and the business community," Halse said.

"It's all about building opportunities for our own city, and our own province, and we're excited to be a part of that." 

with files from Information Morning Saint John