Former Vancouver Law Courts National Historic Site of Canada
Former Vancouver Law Courts
Ancien palais de justice de Vancouver
Vancouver Art Gallery
Links and documents
1907/01/01 to 1911/01/01
Listed on the Canadian Register:
Statement of Significance
Description of Historic Place
The former Vancouver Law Courts building is an imposing stone structure designed in the grand classical style. Situated on a city block bounded by Georgia, Howe, Hornby and Robson Streets, it is a notable public landmark located in the heart of Vancouver’s business and commercial core comprised of large office towers, hotels and retail complexes. It now serves as the Vancouver Art Gallery. The official recognition refers to the interior and exterior of the building.
The former Vancouver Law Courts was designated a national historic site because it is an enduring visual landmark and symbol of justice and an exemplar of its functional type.
As an example of a permanent building erected for the administration of the law in British Columbia, this building illustrates the importance Canadians attach to a strong judicial system. It also reflects Vancouver’s rapid growth, optimism and recognition that the city required full judicial facilities beyond the New Westminster Judicial District. The judicial district of Vancouver was created in 1892. By 1906, new court facilities were required after outgrowing two previous structures rendered obsolete by the city’s soaring population.
The former Law Courts building is a good example of Neoclassical design in the Beaux-Art tradition, widely promoted for public buildings in North America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The building consists of a three-part composition with two wings faced with inset Ionic columns flanking a massive projecting central pediment. The latter features an imposing portico supported by four columns and surmounted by a copper-clad dome on an elevated base. It was designed by Francis Mawson Rattenbury (1867-1935), a noted Victoria architect who was responsible for many prominent public buildings in British Columbia including the Legislative Building in Victoria. The courthouse was opened in the fall of 1911, at which time it was praised as the finest building of its kind in Canada.
By 1914 the city had outgrown the original building and a large new wing connected to the main building by an enclosed two-storey corridor was added to the west side of the building according to the designs of Thomas Hooper. By that time, Vancouver’s population boom was halted by an economic recession and the anticipated need for a second annex did not materialize. For nearly half a century the building continued to meet the city’s judicial requirements but, by the 1970s, the building could no longer accommodate the needs of the court and the decision was made to construct new facilities. Trials were held in this building until 1979, same year as the building's rehabilitation. Vancouver architect, Arthur Erickson was commissioned to design the new Court House located across the street and to convert the former Court House into the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Source: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, March 1980.
Key elements that contribute to the heritage character of the site include its:
- three-storey rectangular massing with flat roof and central, elevated copper-clad dome;
- two types of stone cladding – rusticated Nelson Island granite for the base section and smooth Haddington Island stone for upper levels;
- twin granite lions on pedestals ca. 1910, symbolizing British justice; classical elements including pediments, dome, and stone balustrades along the roof line, marble columns on west and east facades, granite pilasters on north and south facades, recessed and symmetrical fenestration; some with protruding granite sills and canopies smooth, bevelled running courses; four semi-circular occuli in dome, gargoyles, cast iron grates above the foundation, decorative stone and plaster scrollwork with acanthus leaf, garland and wreath motifs throughout the facade;
- steel beam and reinforced concrete construction
- massive granite stair entrances on the west and east facades;
- original signs identifying ‘OFFICES’, ‘LAND REGISTRY’, ‘POLICE’ (with accompanying ‘Sheriff’ signage) incised into offices on the north and south first floor level;
- surviving elements of the original interior layout, notably the central rotunda beneath the dome on the mezzanine level with series of two-storey arcades;
- the high quality classicized decorative treatment such as the use of tapered marble columns on the mezzanine level, twinned marble clad staircase with ornamental wrought iron balustrades, terrazzo floor in fan and Greek key motifs, plaster egg and dart, garland and wreath motifs on ceilings, cornices and walls;
- the use of quality materials including BC fir and oak for the paneling, cornices, wainscoting and architraves, BC and Alaskan marble for foyer, floors, baseboards, vestibule halls, stairs and risers.
Government of Canada
Historic Sites and Monuments Act
National Historic Site of Canada
1911/01/01 to 1979/01/01
1979/01/01 to 1979/01/01
1911/01/01 to 1911/01/01
Theme - Category and Type
- Expressing Intellectual and Cultural Life
- Architecture and Design
- Governing Canada
- Security and Law
Function - Category and Type
- Town or City Hall
Architect / Designer
Francis Mawson Rattenbury
Location of Supporting Documentation
National Historic Sites Directorate, Documentation Centre, 5th Floor, Room 89, 25 Eddy Street, Gatineau, Quebec
Cross-Reference to Collection