New owner needed for historic courthouse
Government expects to have 186-year-old property on the market
The future of the Harbour Grace’s historic courthouse became a bit murky when the justice department announced last year it was moving Harbour Grace Provincial Court staff into another building.
With court services set to move out of the community for good by the end of July, it’s just about settled there’ll never be another judge to hear a case inside the confines of the 186-year-old property, which was the oldest public building in use provincewide prior to closure.
Now that building is under evaluation alongside a slew of publicly owned properties classified as surplus. Transportation and Works Minister Al Hawkins told The Compass it’s highly likely the old courthouse will be on the market at some point.
“Part of my mandate, I’m doing a real estate optimization plan, which includes looking at any excess properties that we do have,” said the minister, noting the plan will also look at leased spaces. “There will be areas that I will look at with regards to disposal and any assets that we have — how we want to divest of those assets — and that building would certainly fall under the purvey of looking at that.”
While Harbour Grace has a few stone buildings of note, architecturally, the courthouse is unlike any other in the community.
But before anyone considers becoming responsible for the building, they’ll need to be fully aware of how much restoration work is required.
According to the most recent report prepared for government last summer, walls are at risk of collapsing inward unless a permanent fix is made. The report from St. John’s engineering firm Morrison Hershfield notes a previous consultant identified an urgent need for repairs to the east and south walls in 2011.
Temporary shoring work to support the structure was completed in the fall of 2014 at a cost of approximately $150,000 to keep the courthouse open through the winter. In a previous report, Morrison Hershfield said hazards addressed in the past had accelerated.
In an on site assessment carried out shortly before the July 2015 report was prepared for government, Morrison Hershfield found evidence of deterioration at the southeast corner of the building that was “more advanced than what was previously noted.” They found mortar patches were often loose and could be removed with little effort.
“The poor condition and impending instability of the exterior walls and the potential for partial collapse has been identified over the last several years yet no permanent fix has been implemented,” notes the report.
The report also found there was nothing to prevent water from getting into the wall cavity in many areas, increasing the risk of mortar joint washout and further deterioration.
“Once this happens, there is a risk that the wall could collapse inwardly into the building,” wrote Morrison Hershfield. “The temporary buttressing that was put in place will not prevent the wall from an inward collapse. Another winter season of water freezing and thawing could potentially weaken the walls to a point where a failure may occur. It is possible a failure may occur with little to no warning.”
In an interview with The Compass earlier this year, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons referred to a “multi-million dollar fix” as “not feasible” for providing courthouse services.
While government has not obtained a firm figure on the estimated cost of restoration, Hawkins said an internal review involving department engineers offered a preliminary estimate that “would be certainly north of millions.”
Hawkins acknowledges there are structural issues to contend with at the courthouse, suggesting it would be an “as is, where is” situation with respect to a sale. This phrase takes into account that the buyer is taking on the property with all its faults acknowledged.
“We’re certainly aware of the historical value and the importance of that, because it is a structure that’s been there for quite some time, and it’s a lot of history that would certainly be in that building,” said Hawkins.
“But at this point in time for us as a government, it’s probably not something that we would look at as an opportunity for us for our needs. But obviously there may be people in the market (where) that building will be of interest to them.”
The historic Harbour Grace courthouse was built in 1830.
A view of the main courtroom in Harbour Grace, now filled with old filing cabinets instead of courthouse staff.
This door leads to the former cells for prisoners kept at the courthouse.
Some work has been completed in recent years to aid the structural integrity of the courthouse, but a preliminary estimate suggests it will take millions to handle a muchneeded full restoration.