'Anxious to get going': Theatre company takes possession of historic Saint John courthouse

The Saint John Theatre Company has officially taken possession of the nearly 200-year-old Sydney Street courthouse.

The sale closed last week, as the province transferred ownership to the theatre company in a deal that has been in the works for four years.

Stephen Tobias, executive director of the theatre company, said the preliminary steps will be to secure the building over the next few weeks and said the public will likely see some activity on the site soon.

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

The original architect was John Cunningham, a Scottish-born stonemason who became well-known for his work as an architect. Cunningham also designed the Saint John Custom House and the Bank of New Brunswick building, as well as the hospital that once stood on Partridge Island, in Saint John Harbour.

The courthouse is built in neoclassical style, typical of many of Cunningham's designs.

Connell Smith/CBC

Saint John city council held its meetings there until 1879.

Badly damaged in a 1919 fire, it was refurbished in 1924.

It's best known for its marble floors and a unique, free-standing stone circular staircase.

The building has been vacant since 2013, when the new Saint John Law Courts building opened, making the Sydney Street location surplus.  The province has continued to heat the building while it was vacant.

Province of New Brunswick/gnb.ca

In early 2016, the City of Saint John turned down an offer to purchase the property.

So the province began seeking interest from the private sector.

But first it had to repeal a declaration of trust executed in 1826 that stated the building could only house a court or municipal offices.

The Saint John Theatre Company did a $38,000 feasibility study to see if the building would be suitable for a performance and rehearsal space, with an eye toward it becoming home to a professional repertory company and theatre school.

Connell Smith/CBC

Last spring, the federal government awarded the project $2.5 million through Heritage Canada and ACOA.

The estimated price tag for the whole project is $7 million.

Tobias said that after all the work to get to this point, taking possession of the property seemed almost anti-climactic.

"Legal work, paperwork takes time, so I think it was just more of a sense of 'Finally, we're done with this, let's move on to the next phase,' because we're anxious to get going," he said.

The first step is to fix a few issues to make sure the interior of the building won't suffer damage from weather.

"You know, there are some windows that are bad, and there are some leaks in the roof and things like that," Tobias said. "So we'll be doing some things just to secure the property and stabilize it."

Julia Wright /CBC

But he said the theatre company won't be ready to talk about the project in full until later in the year.

"The plan at the moment is that sometime late summer, early fall, we want to be standing at podiums, sharing our plans, sharing our vision for that building."

Tobias said that right now, they are still in conversations with architects about how they might approach the design to suit the company's needs.

"What we don't want to do is tell a story now, because the story's still evolving and we'll just end up telling a different story three or four months down the road," Tobias said.

"That practice erodes trust."