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Echos From the Past: Medieval Revival in Nanaimo’s Courthouse

October 5th, 2017
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The Nanaimo Courthouse is a structure signalling historical significance, both in its age––it is more than 120 years old––and in its imitation of an even older architectural style. Built between 1895 and 1896 to replace the previous wooden courthouse, the newer stone building made a statement of permanence with its granite foundation and sandstone exterior. It is a prominent landmark, situated on a main street facing the harbour.

The building is an example of Richardsonian Romanesque, a style of Medieval Revival in architecture hearkening back to historical roots in the Middle Ages, but also evoking the grandness of nature in its impressive scale. Medieval Revival was popular in architecture at this time, especially for public buildings like churches and parliament buildings, but also sometimes for family homes such as Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria. Nanaimo’s courthouse particularly displays this style in its stone façade, and round arches in its windows and doors. The architect, Francis Mawson Rattenbury, was one of British Columbia’s leading institutional architects at the turn of the century, and built other important Medieval Revival structures such as the Nelson Courthouse, and, notably, Victoria’s parliament buildings (which combine the Romanesque style with Neo-Baroque).

While it boasts architectural elements that date as far back as the Middle Ages, the Nanaimo Courthouse is not entirely conventional. Traditionally, court houses were placed on a corner to make their presence more prominent. Nanaimo’s court house sits mid-block, and set back in the lot to allow for landscaping in the front. An addition in the back of the building, on Chapel Street, added in 1957, is Modernist in style, but rather than clash with the original it looks like a separate building.

The courthouse is listed with the The Canadian Register of Historic Places as one of British Columbia’s foremost heritage buildings.

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