Timeless tales: Nanaimo courthouse a symbol of permanence

NANAIMO – Part of provincial process to build regional courthouses in B.C. in 1890s.

An historical photo shows the Nanaimo courthouse shortly after it was built.

An historical photo shows the Nanaimo courthouse shortly after it was built.

Situated at the doorstep of the waterfront, the Nanaimo courthouse is a classic piece of architecture that has stood for more than 120 years.

Built between 1895-96, with granite block foundation and sandstone bearing exterior walls, it’s an example of Richardsonian Romanesque design, featuring “rough-dressed masonry” and “prominent round arched openings,” according to the City of Nanaimo Community Heritage Register.

It looks remarkably similar to another governmental structure on Vancouver Island – the legislature buildings in Victoria. Both were designed by architect Francis Rattenbury, said Chris Sholberg, city culture and heritage planner.

The building is one of the premier buildings listed on the heritage register, according to Sholberg.

“Basically, it replaced an earlier wood-frame courthouse building and showed a little more permanency … They were in the process in the late 1890s of building regional courthouses around B.C. and this was one of the ones that was built,” said Sholberg.

While the Front Street part of the building has been around since the 19th century, the Chapel Street section hasn’t been around quite as long. Sholberg said the office complex in the back end was built in 1957 and adheres to international, modernist style – simple and straightforward. The new doesn’t conflict with the old, he said.

“You really see them as two different buildings when you look at them from the street and that’s actually a good thing from a heritage building principle perspective,” said Sholberg. “When you build additions to heritage buildings, you generally don’t want to overwhelm the original building with a newer building form.”

Much like a baseball player about to play at a storied stadium, like Fenway Park, Greg Phillips, a lawyer with Johnston Franklin Bishop, said there is an aura about the courtroom in the old wing. It’s one of his favourite rooms in the courthouse.

“It’s been around for so long that there’s just kind of a sense of history. At the counsel tables, you can pull open the drawers and you can see little bits of lawyer graffiti, just sort of names and numbers jotted down on there from many cases decades ago,” said Phillips.

Erin Brook, of Brook Law, expresses similar sentiments to Phillips in regards to the courtroom. She said when the light is coming through the stained glass window, there is an historical feel to it.

“Because so much of what we do in court is so much about formality and procedure, doing it in a room that contains that much history, it does have an impact on you and how you present,” said Brook.

Sholberg said he hopes people have an opportunity to see the old courthouse.

“I always say to people as a bit of a joke, hopefully you get a chance someday to look at it, but you’re here for the right reasons,” says Sholberg with a laugh. “It’s worth seeing the inside.”