Updated: Sep 16, 2021
There are a few reasons why two buildings might look alike. First and most obviously, they may have been designed by the same person and built from the same plan. They may have been one in a series of buildings designed in a certain style or pattern (we’ll look at some examples in a subsequent post).
One building may replicate or pay homage to another. And then, I’m sure, there are some cases of outright architectural plagiarism (we’ll soon study one particularly notorious example).
But I’m not sure which of these applies in the case of the first purpose-built Nelson and Revelstoke courthouses. The two buildings were almost identical, the only obvious differences being the pediment (Revelstoke’s was steeper and had windows) and chimneys (not visible on Revelstoke’s).
Left: The original Nelson courthouse on a 1909 postcard, a year after it was moved to the bottom of Ward street to become city hall. (Greg Nesteroff collection) Right: The original Revelstoke courthouse as depicted in the booklet Picturesque Revelstoke.
Nelson’s came first, built in 1893, on the same site as the present courthouse at a cost of $5,945 (roughly $210,000 today). The architect was Alexander Maxwell Muir, who received a commission of $200, according to the 1893-94 public accounts.
Muir, a Glaswegian, designed more than 50 buildings in BC beginning in 1889. He was also responsible for the courthouse in Vernon (1892-93), as well as the Board of Trade building in Victoria (1892), Vernon public school (1893), Kamloops jail (1897), Marble Bay Hotel on Texada Island (1898), and Chemainus hospital (1903). Sadly, his career and life were cut short by poor health. Muir suffered from ALS and died in Vancouver in 1922, age 62.
The contractors on the Nelson courthouse were McPhee and Whiteside of Kaslo, who had the low bid among six contenders.
Even before it was completed, detractors complained about the courthouse’s size. According to the Nelson Tribune:
The new court-house at Nelson is so small that there is not office room for the officials who should of necessity transact business with the public at the county seat. When here holding court, Mr. Justice Walkem remarked that the building was not large enough to hold sessions of court in, to say nothing of housing half a dozen different officials.
By contrast, this is how it was described in the public works report the year after it was built:
A commodious and handsome building … containing Court room, Jury room, Judge’s chambers, Prisoner’s room, Record office, Registry, Gold Commissioner’s office, etc. These offices are partly furnished …
When the first sitting in the new courthouse occurred on Sept. 19, 1893 before Judge John A. Forin, the Tribune pointed out another shortcoming:
The court room is a handsome and airy chamber, but suffers from the difficulty anyone has in hearing what anyone else is saying. This was complained of by the judge, and obviously disconcerted the various lawyers who had to appear.
The Tribune figured the problem with acoustics would be rectified once the building was fully furnished. But the griping continued on other fronts. Although an addition was built in 1898, the courthouse continued to be derided for its “miserable accommodation.” In 1902, a judge reportedly refused to hear any cases because the ventilation was so poor.
In 1897, the original Revelstoke courthouse was built on the same block of Second Street West as the present one. The contractor was Thomas Hillier and it cost $6,714 (about $268,000 today). As for the designer, the Revelstoke Herald stated on Jan. 27: “C.B. McLean, architect, has just completed plans and specifications for the proposed new court house and jail …”
Charles B. McLean (or MacLean, or Maclean) was a Nottinghamshire native who came to Revelstoke around 1896, where his brother Ralph was the assistant postmaster. A couple of their sisters also lived there.
What architectural training Charles possessed is unknown. Was McLean hired to modify Muir’s plan? Or did he outright swipe it? While the Herald made it sound like McLean was responsible for the design, the public accounts say he was paid $360 for “services superintending construction.” No architect’s commission was paid to anyone, suggesting an existing plan was used. But Muir received no credit.
So the Herald may have erred. Or perhaps McLean overstated his role in the project. Or at least did nothing to dispute the notion that he was the architect of record.
Among his other local works, McLean built a cottage, inspected work on the Molsons Bank, and installed fixtures on the Lakeview Hotel in Arrowhead.
According to the Kootenay Mail of Sept. 25, 1897: “C.B. McLean, the architect, designer, and builder, is one of the busiest men in town. He has half a dozen big jobs on his hands and it keeps him busy superintending them all.”
McLean advertised in Revelstoke newspapers through mid-1898 (the ad seen here is from the Herald of June 25, 1898). He was last listed in the Revelstoke civic directory in 1901, and by 1904 had moved to Vancouver, where he plied his trade for a few years. At least one of his buildings is still standing there.
Judge Forin must have experienced déjà vu on Oct. 6, 1897 when he was present for the first sitting of the new Revelstoke courthouse. But the adjectives used to describe the building were more generous than those used in Nelson. Forin said the courtroom and his private room “were both very commodious and comfortable.”
A description of the building in the Kootenay Mail was probably equally applicable to the courthouse in Nelson:
The building … is a two storey frame structure … erected upon a stone foundation … There are five rooms on the ground floor, consisting of recorder’s office, private offices, etc. The courtroom is on the second floor and is 25x40 feet, with a ceiling of 14 feet. It has been fitted with jury boxes, witness stands, etc. … Besides this there are on this floor rooms for the judge, lawyers and prisoners … The building is plastered throughout and will be heated by a hot air furnace … The height of the structure from the foundation to the flag pole is 85 feet.
The BC Archives has a terrific photo showing the Board of Trade meeting in the courtroom in 1898. After Revelstoke incorporated in 1899, city council held its first meetings there before relocating to the No. 2 fire hall.
I haven’t found any contemporary commentary on the similarity of the two buildings. But in his 1977 manuscript The Early Court Houses of British Columbia, Edward Mills noted the first Nelson courthouse’s design “was duplicated three [sic] years later for the initial court house at Revelstoke.”
Elsewhere in the same document, Mills mistakenly stated that the first Revelstoke courthouse “served as the model for an identical court house built at Nelson in the following year [i.e. 1898].” He also misattributed the design of the Revelstoke courthouse to A.E. Hodgins.
But I know the source of these errors: Hodgins designed the 1898 addition to the Nelson courthouse in concert with A. Maxwell Muir. Mills then presumed Hodgins must have been responsible for both the Nelson and Revelstoke buildings.
Both courthouses were ultimately replaced with buildings that became their respective cities’ most iconic edifices.
In 1911, as construction began on the same site of a far more majestic Revelstoke courthouse designed by Thomas Hooper, the original building was moved elsewhere on the property. It was presumably demolished once the new courthouse was completed in 1913.
The original Nelson courthouse had a much longer life. In 1908, the city bought it for $4,907 (about $181,000 today) and it was moved to the foot of Ward Street to make way for a new courthouse designed by Francis Rattenbury.
At its new location, the old courthouse became city hall and the police station. It was used for those purposes for more than 50 years, despite being repeatedly condemned by the fire marshal.
Nelson city call, at the corner of Ward and Front streets, ca. 1950s. (Greg Nesteroff collection)
The municipal offices finally relocated to the former post office (today Touchstones Nelson) in 1960 and a demolition contract was awarded to George Marken to do away with the old courthouse-turned-city hall. The remaining rubble was burned by the fire department, clearing the way for the new Selkirk Health Unit, now Superior Lighting and Bath.
While nothing much was said about its appearance when first built, at the end of its life the Nelson Daily News called it “an outstanding example of Victorian architecture” that had been allowed to become a “public eyesore.” Yet from the outside, it looked much the same as when it was built, except that at some point it lost its bell tower.
Now here’s the kicker: a third version of this building is still standing. In Japan.
In 1987, Nelson signed a sister-city agreement with Shuzenji, now known as Izu-shi. Early in that relationship, someone from Shuzenji visited Nelson and took copies of the original architectural drawings of the old city hall back to Japan, where they were used to build a re-creation in Niji-no-Sato (Rainbow Village) theme park.
According to current Izu-shi Friendship Society president John Armstrong,
There, not far from a little orange bridge and across the street from the Baker Street Boutique, is the old Nelson city hall. It serves now as a museum for a collection of artwork, artifacts, tourism brochures, newspapers, and so on from Nelson and also houses a small art gallery.
Although intended to look like Nelson’s old courthouse, it inadvertently replicated Revelstoke’s first courthouse as well. While I can’t say how faithfully it was reproduced, at first blush, it certainly looks like the real thing. If they were working off the original plans, it is probably very accurate.
A replica of the original Nelson courthouse forms part of the Canadian village at Niji-no-Sato theme park in Izushi, Japan. (Courtesy John Armstrong)
About those plans: on July 21, 1960, the Daily News published a sketch, seen here, that was apparently taken from them. The plans must have been passed along to the City of Nelson when they bought the building.
The Touchstones Nelson archives does not have them, but if they were still in the city’s hands in the late ‘80s, perhaps they are still somewhere at city hall. The BC Archives apparently has copies too.
Two final notes: a photo in the Rossland Museum and Discovery Centre is mislabelled as the original Rossland city hall. (It has appeared in at least one book.) In fact, it shows the original Nelson courthouse-turned-city hall.
The original Rossland city hall was on the south side of Columbia Avenue next to the still-standing Miners’ Hall. I’ve only ever seen one photo of it, showing just a portion of the building.
When a new fire hall was built in 1900, the city offices moved there — and remained there until the 1970s.
The book Building the West: The Early Architects of British Columbia contains a biography of Alexander Maxwell Muir that correctly attributes the first Nelson courthouse to him. It also contains a picture of that courthouse (the same one seen at the top of this page), but it is erroneously described as Muir’s courthouse at Vernon. In fact, that building actually looked like this. It was not another version of the Nelson and Revelstoke courthouses.
— With thanks to John Armstrong and Jim Wolf