The St. John’s Courthouse is an imposing Richardsonian Romanesque Revival stone building prominently located on Water and Duckworth Streets, St. John’s. The courthouse is highly visible from the St. John’s harbour and it sits near the waterfront. The designation is confined to the footprint of the property.
Statement of Significance
Formal Recognition Type
City of St. John's Heritage Building, Structure, Land or Area
The St. John’s Courthouse was designated a municipal heritage site by the City of St. John’s because it has historic, aesthetic, cultural and environmental values.
The St. John’s Courthouse has historic value because it was built as the fourth courthouse in St. John’s, the previous three having been destroyed. The first courthouse and jail, made of wood, was constructed in 1730 and remained for 100 years on roughly the same site as the present courthouse. Due to its age it was removed, and in 1831 a second building was constructed. It was two stories tall in order to accommodate the public hangings which were staged from the second story window. In 1846 this courthouse was destroyed by fire and a third building was erected as a Market House and Courthouse. When this building burned in the Great Fire of 1892 the courthouses were moved to other buildings within the city. In 1899 the government decided to build a new courthouse and the contract was awarded to Samuel Manners Brookfield for a final cost of $128,000. This contract was awarded amidst great controversy, since Brookfield was a Nova Scotian who planned to use materials for the building’s construction from his home province. Adverse publicity resulted in the use of local materials. The courthouse is also historically significant because the cornerstone was laid by HRH the Duke of York, later King George V, with a 14K gold trowel made especially for the ceremony.
The St. John’s Courthouse has aesthetic value because it is an excellent example of a Romanesque stone structure designed by Newfoundland architect William H. Greene. It is one of the only stone courthouses in Newfoundland. Constructed from local materials, the building features stone from the Petites Quarries, whinstone from Kelly’s Island, brick from Trinity Factories and lumber from the Horwood Lumber Co. The Courthouse features cut ashlar granite and sandstone. It has a truncated hip roof with multiple gables and a four-sided clock tower. In typical Romanesque style, the main entrance is a central portal, with a triumphal arch and a covered open porch. The building features turrets at peak points. The building is accessible from both Water and Duckworth Streets and the rear of the building on Duckworth Street is vastly different from the front. Built into the side of a hill, the front of the building has five stories, while the rear has three. The Water Street entrance is much more formal, as it was used as the primary entryway and faced the main street of commerce. As well, the Duckworth Street entrance was used for the administration of justice while the Water Street entrance was originally used to access the offices of the Prime Minister. Located at the rear are two end towers, one conical and one square. Unifying elements that draw the building together are the arches, Corinthian columns and the peaked dormers. There are several entrances to the building, featuring large, wooden paneled doors and most windows are long and slender with three panes. The St. John’s Courthouse is also aesthetically valuable because the interior of the building retains most of its original architectural details, particularly on the four principal floors; two on Water Street and two on Duckworth Street.
The St. John’s Courthouse has cultural value because it is the primary symbol of justice for Newfoundland and Labrador. It represents law and order, and a courthouse has stood in the area for nearly 300 years. The building has been in continual use since its construction in 1901.
The Courthouse has environmental value because of its close proximity to the St. John’s waterfront. The structure is a noted local landmark, and is highly visible from both the harbour and land.
Sources: Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador unnumbered File: St. John’s – St. John’s Courthouse
Character Defining Elements
All those architectural features of a Newfoundland interpretation of the Richardson Romanesque Revival movement including:
-keystone arch main portal;
-window style and placement;
-roof style and material.
Those remaining features related to original building construction, including:
-the use of local stone, brick and lumber;
-original clock and tower, with bell;
-number of stories and general massing of the building, and its location, orientation, and dimensions;
-original window and door openings;
-original interior features including wainscoting panelling, all oak staircases, banisters and stair rails, and ornamental hard wall plaster cornices and medallions.
All those original interior features related to the historic use of the building as courtroom and government office space, including:
-layout, design, fixed furniture, ceiling height and detailing of courtroom number 1;
-remaining detailing of the courtroom on the upper floor in the southwest corner, including v-groove panelling and hammer beam construction;
-all interior doors with etched or painted glasswork and pediment trimwork;
-formal government office entrance off Water Street;
-formal courtroom entrance and grand central foyer off Duckworth Street.
All those original interior features of the holding cell and related areas, including:
-spiral metal staircase;
-cell layout, doors and hardware.
All those features that speak to the landmark and environmental quality of the building, including:
-open green space to the east of the building;
-uninterrupted view of the building up Clift Baird’s Cove from the harbourside;
-associated landscape feature, the cobblestone pavement on the Water Street side to the southwest of the courthouse.
The Courthouse has two end towers – one conical and one square. It also has classical features in the form of Corinthian columns with acanthus leaves. Exterior stone was cleaned and joists repaired in 1989, bell silenced in 1905, removed in 1968 and returned in 1989. The jail facilities have been in the building since its early history, and include several interesting architectural feeatures, particularly the cell layoug, the circular design of the current drunk tank (formerly the morgue) and the cast iron circular staircase leading upwards directly to one of the courtrooms above. In addition to its architecural interest, the jail portion of the buildign certainly is of some historic interest as well. There are other courthouses in Newfoundland , all in a rural context, that contained small jail faciliities, such as the courthouses in Greenspond and Trinity. HOwever, given the overall size of the St. John’s Courthouse, it is not surprising that its jail facilities may be larger than those in the rural courthouses. Historically, the jail section is interesting in that it is one of the only courthouses in the province where the jail is still in use for the purpose for which it was designed.
Location and History
City of St. John's
194 Water Street
1901 - 1904
Samuel Manners Brookfield, William H. Greene
Rectangular Long Façade