Description of Historic Place
The Argyle Township Court House and Gaol is a two-and-a-half storey wooden building located on the corner of Highway #3 and Courthouse Road in the centre of the village of Tusket, NS. With the gable end facing the water, the large structure is a landmark in the community. The designation applies to the building and surrounding property.
The Argyle Township Court House and Gaol is valued for its age, its role in the history of the community of Tusket, its many original and historic features and architecture, and its association with several prominent political and judicial figures in the nineteenth century.
Orders for the construction of the Argyle Township Court House were issued in 1801 and construction was completed in 1805, making it the oldest courthouse and gaol in Canada. At that time, the Court of General Sessions of the Peace governed Nova Scotia at the local level. After 1805, all of these sessions of court for the Argyle district were held at this courthouse. The first session was held on 29 October 1805. This courthouse also hosted the Inferior Court of Common Pleas and the Supreme Court. Noteworthy among the Supreme Court Judges who sat at Tusket was Thomas Chandler Haliburton, one of Canada’s first widely published authors. Supreme Court ceased to be held here in 1924 and the gaol in the building was closed. Local magistrates continued to preside over Magistrates Court here until 1944. Although meetings of Municipal Council were held in this building from the time of municipal incorporation in 1880, nothing resembling a formal business office for their affairs was established in the building until 1945. The building’s main function from 1945-1976 was as Municipal Offices for the Municipality of Argyle. In 1982-83 a partial restoration of the building took place and it was reopened in 1983 as a museum and community archive. The Argyle Township Court House Archives was the first municipal archives to be established in Nova Scotia in the 1980s.
Over the years that it served as a courthouse, regular trials were held in the courtroom and prisoners were confined in the jail. Perhaps the most notorious trial to take place here was the 1922 murder trial of Omar P. Roberts. He was jailed in the courthouse for the duration of the trial and became the last person to be hanged in Yarmouth County. The courtroom is also notable for having been the site of numerous public meetings and assemblies, including speeches by leading politicians of the day. In 1861, the courthouse played host to campaign speeches from opposing political parties led by Sir Charles Tupper, future Premier of Nova Scotia, Father of the Canadian Confederation and Prime Minister of Canada, and Joseph Howe, journalist, politician, and future MP and Premier of Nova Scotia.
The Argyle Township Court House and Gaol is a simple Greek Revival, two-storey building. Its imposing size and massing have made it a local landmark and somewhat unique in Nova Scotia. While the building underwent several renovations, much of its original form remains. In 1833, with a need for more space, the building’s length was doubled and again extended in the 1870s. The current appearance of the second-storey courtroom dates from the 1870s. Neither renovation altered the original front façade, with its prominent entrance distinguished by Tuscan style pilasters. The original jury benches, prisoners' docket and judge's podium remain intact. Also intact is the main floor cellblock and wooden spiral staircase leading to the spectator section of the courtroom.
This courthouse was the seat of government and justice for the District of Argyle for one hundred and seventy-five years. Located on the banks of the Tusket River in the centre of the village, the building was a hub of activity for two centuries, and continues to serve the community today as a museum and historic site. In 2005, the Argyle Township Court House and Gaol received designation as a National Historic Site.
Argyle Municipal Heritage Files, file #001; Parks Canada, Canadian Inventory of Historic Building: Former Argyle District Court House, 1977; Parks Canada, Early Canadian Court Houses, 1983; Yarmouth Herald, Jan. 24 1861 & Apr. 22 1861.
Character-defining elements of the Tusket Court House that relate to its Greek Revival architecture include:
- gable end facing road and Tusket River;
- main entrance in centre of gable end with Tuscan-style pilasters on either side;
- fan light over main entrance;
- Tuscan-style pilasters at corners;
- triangular pediment over fan light;
- eave returns;
- decorative cornerboards;
- diamond shaped window at attic level of façade.
Character-defining elements of the Tusket Court House that relate to its use as a court house and gaol include:
- windowless prisoner cells on main storey;
- court room on second storey;
- original iron door on main level leading to cell block;
- original rounded interior stair case leading to gallery;
- original elevated judge’s bench;
- carved rosette air vent in centre of court room ceiling;
- judge’s chambers and jury room directly behind court room;
- original jury benches and prisoners' docket.
General character-defining elements of the Tusket Court House include:
- construction of local building materials;
- form and massing;
- wooden clapboard cladding;
- gable roof;
- granite foundations;
- location in centre of Tusket;
- wooden cupola;
- double hung sash windows;
- medium pitched roof;
- twelve-over-twelve window over main entrance;
- diamond shaped window in centre of gable on front elevation at attic level;
- five symmetrically placed twelve-over-twelve windows on second storey of south and north elevations;
- two twelve-over-twelve windows on ground level of south and north elevations and two smaller cell block windows placed slightly higher than others;
- two twelve-over-twelve windows in rear gable end, one at ground level, the other at attic level.