The Old Courthouse and Town Hall

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699.6 dbp12 courthouse on pleasant st. 1893

80 Pleasant Street

The Old Courthouse has a fascinating history as its construction was surrounded with intense controversy with the town of Lunenburg. The location of court facilities in Bridgewater caused great debate at the close of the 19th century.

 

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699.6_DBP12_Courthouse_on_Pleasant_St._1893

The Bridgewater Courthouse in 1893, shortly after being built. 699.6 DBP12

     At this time, Bridgewater and Lunenburg were fierce economic rivals. Bridgewater held blocks of 7 votes, while Lunenburg held only 6 on the Lunenburg District's municipal council. In January 1891, Lunenburg residents petitioned council to build a new courthouse, presumably in their town, and the motion was passed 7-6. Another motion to have semi-annual meetings in Bridgewater was also passed however and made Bridgewater more eminent and noteworthy. The three-member committee tasked with reporting on the courthouse decision was, unfortunately, indecisive; two members gave a report in favour of building the courts in Lunenburg. The third committee member was W. J. Wentzell (who hadn't attended any committee meetings) and he filed a minority report suggesting that the courthouse be built in Bridgewater. At the April council meeting, 18 of Bridgewater's most respected citizens were present– including the likes of F. B. Wade, Robert Dawson, and Frank Davison – to petition council to build the courthouse in Bridgewater, guaranteeing to cover the costs. The next month, council appointed another committee to execute Wentzell's proposal.

     Lunenburg lost the battle – by the predictable vote 7-6 in municipal council – to build a $20,000 courthouse to be deeded to council for $10,000.  Lunenburg went ahead and built a new $30,000 stone courthouse anyway.  A year later, in May, 1892, with little progress made, Lunenburg staged another attempt swaying momentum to their side. First, Lunenburgers offered to lease their new courthouse to council for $1 a year over 7 years; they then tried to guarantee that taxes would not be raised to cover the cost of a courthouse in Bridgewater. They were not able to make the courthouse in Bridgewater merely an auxiliary to the one in Lunenburg, nor to have the warden and five councillors dismissed for "dishonesty" in awarding "illegal contracts" to firms such as Henry Sorette's. All of these motions failed with a vote tally of 7 to 6.

     Later that summer – in August, 1892 – council finally concluded a courthouse would be built in Bridgewater, at a cost of $11,500 (though Lunenburg residents were to see no new taxes to cover the cost). The tender call lasted merely three hours. A minority report written by Bridgewater supporter Nathaniel Hebb, who had claimed three months earlier to have been the subject of an attempted bribe to support Lunenburg, was approved to hire the already-mentioned Henry Sorette. The Lunenburg supporters who held the majority on this committee tried to suggest faults in all the bids, and suggested hiring an architect.

     All argument came to a standstill in November, 1892, as municipal elections took place. However, when council resumed the following January, there was turmoil: one of the defeated councillors – a Bridgewater supporter– was contesting his defeat through the legal system and there was a 6:6 deadlock. Because of the split vote, the Warden had to be appointed by the premier W. S. Fielding. Finally, in April 1893, Fielding quashed the dissension amongst the municipal council and put forth an act to give $9,500 towards a courthouse in each town, with fall sittings to take place in Bridgewater and the spring sittings in Lunenburg.

Courthouse

A sideview of the Old Courthouse in 1918. (Busy East, 1918)

     The Bridgewater courthouse contained municipal council chambers amongst other things and its hard-fought success eventually led to Bridgewater becoming the county seat of Lunenburg District and the centre of its affairs. Though the courthouse in Lunenburg burned down in 1930, Bridgewater's magnificent building, designed by G & F Boehner and built in 1893, has become an iconic Bridgewater landmark. However, like many buildings of its age, the courthouse has been greatly altered from its original appearance.

     Despite Neoclassical and Greek revival styles predominating American public buildings and the British still employing the favoured Neo-gothic or Gothic Revival styles, the County of Lunenburg opted to use the Second Empire style. French Second Empire buildings have been built since the 1850s, when Emperor Napoleon III added additions to his 16th century palace and used modern interpretations on the French Renaissance style. This design became very popular in the United States and, subsequently, Canada, peaking in popularity in the 1870s and 1880s. Its intricate and imposing appearance symbolized the progress and success of the Industrial Revolution's new technologies, allowing owners to show off their wealth through lavish construction. The Department of Public Works used this style for many buildings constructed for the new Dominion of Canada in the 1870s and 1880s and it slowly trickled down to provincial and municipal governments. After the hard-fought battle to secure the rights to their own courthouse, Bridgewater's residents surely wanted a style that spoke of progress and wealth.

     The building itself was a stunning example of Second Empire architecture done in wood, with each level differing in decoration, but forming a unified design. The first floor windows each had a transom light and cornice over them, now covered over. Even the windows in front of the stairway (front-left) were left open, even though crossed by the stairs, so that they could maintain the symmetrical façade of the building. Over the front door was a wonderful semi-circular window with elaborate tracery and hood moulding, though the moulding is now gone as well. The second-storey windows had arched tops, and the larger window on the front of the central pavilion had a semi-circular window over top of it similar to the one below, on the top of the front door. This window, with its delicate tracery, has now been covered over as well. Just beneath these large windows ran a belt course, separating the first and second levels. Also, in between each pair of windows, a vertical course of trim ran parallel to the cornerboards, creating an ordered grid. Where the paths of these mouldings cross the path of a belt course, there is a corbelled block of wood with a carved design.

     Underneath the eaves, where the frieze interrupts the mouldings, there was a set of intricately carved brackets. These have been removed. The upper storey of the central pavilion has its own belt course, with semi circular windows. On the same level, along the bell-curved lower slope of the Mansard roof, were gabled dormers, each with a slightly sloping roof. These were removed in the 1990s when the roof was redone. The upper portion of the Mansard roof is a very shallow hipped roof. The pavilion extends on top of the Mansard roof to form a pyramidal hipped-roof tower. This is the only part of the building left intact; the triangular dormers with tracery remain on the building in its current state. Behind this, stood a lovely Victorian brick chimney with decorative corbelling, removed as well. All of this occurred mainly in the late 1970s, when the Courthouse was vinyl sided, greatly reducing its historical integrity.

80_Pleasant

The Old Courthouse in June, 2012. The property is now owned by Pro-Oceanus Systems Inc.,  which produces oceanographic instruments.  

Bibliography

Brown, Lisa. "Old courthouse wasn't without controversy." Bridgewater Bulletin 30 June 2009: A3.

Editors of the Bridgewater Enterprise. "The court house controversy." Bridgewater Enterprise 11 May 1892: Editorial.

Harlow, Audrey. The Story of BRIDGEWATER Nova Scotia From the earliest days to Centennial Year, 1967. Bridgewater: DesBrisay Museum, 1967.

Roy, Joanne. "A source of contention in Lunenburg County." Bridgewater Bulletin 3 August 1988: 64.