May 30th, 2020

Heritage in the Hat: Courthouse turns 100

By Sally Sehn on November 2, 2019.

Photos Courtesy Karen-Anne Cherwonogrodsky
The courthouse in winter.

Every year, the Heritage Resources Committee issues a Centennial Certificate to honour existing commercial or public structures 100 years or older. This year, the HRC is recognizing the Medicine Hat Courthouse (today Court of Queen’s Bench). Construction began in 1919 as attested by the year “1919” engraved into the ornate projecting entrance which also features the coat of arms of Alberta. Completed the following year, the first court session was held on Sept. 1, 1920.

The courthouse is an ornate two-storey brick and stone structure adjacent to the South Saskatchewan River, located indirectly across from the historic Ewart Duggan House. It is the oldest provincial courthouse in continuous use since its construction. The building is distinguished by its Beaux-Arts Classicist elements. It was designed by R. P. Blakey, architect for the provincial Department of Public Works. The innovative architecture served as a prototype for two subsequent Alberta courthouses; one in Red Deer, the other in Vegreville.

The original building was constructed by Bennett & White Construction Company of Calgary at an estimated cost of $130,000 ($1,770,600 in today’s dollars). A newcomer in construction, Bennett & White had only been in business for three years when it was awarded the contract. Where possible, local tradespeople were hired. Bennett and White Construction Ltd. subsequently became a highly successful Alberta based company with projects that included other public buildings, roads, grain elevators, bridges and dams. It was the contractor for the Glenmore Dam project in Calgary in the early 1930s. During the Second World War, the company built many of the facilities used by the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

The Bennett & White building was not the first courthouse in Medicine Hat. After the NWMP post and the CPR terminal were established here in 1883, Medicine Hat initially became part of the Bow River judicial district. In those early days, there was no designated courthouse nor local judicial employees. There was no immediate need because the early citizens were mostly law-abiding. Dockets, both criminal and civil were small and court was often cancelled for lack of criminals to try. Until 1892 when Medicine Hat became a separate judicial seat for the territorial District of Assiniboia, court officials travelled from the judicial headquarters in Fort Macleod to settle cases. The first courthouse, a small and inexpensive wood structure, was built in 1899. Now demolished, it was once located on the current site of the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion (702 Second St. SE). The current and second courthouse remained unchanged until 1986 when a historically accurate addition was built on the west and north sides.

In 1978, the Medicine Hat Courthouse was designated a Provincial Historic Resource.

Sally Sehn is a Member of the Heritage Resources Committee of the City of Medicine Hat.

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