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Placentia Courthouse makes new friends

The Placentia Courthouse as it stands today.
The Placentia Courthouse as it stands today.

PLACENTIA — Community volunteers in Placentia are using their collective brainpower to ensure a building with a longstanding history remains in the town for years to come.

A photo of the old courthouse dating back to the 1920s.

The Placentia Courthouse was built in 1902, making it 115 years old in 2017.

"The main objective, I guess, is to preserve what we have, to protect what we have, and to promote what we have," said Anita O'Keefe, chairperson of the newly formed Friends of the Courthouse group. "It's not just the courthouse and the structure, but it's the history of the courthouse and structure, and also the related judicial system that goes along with that, because it’s a long, storied history that we have there."

According to O'Keefe, Eugene Upshall contacted her after hearing a radio interview she did concerning the Placentia gun, a German 7mm Field Cannon from the First World War placed in front of the courthouse building.

A Department of Transportation and Works employee who was on the verge of retiring, Upshall is from the Placentia area and has a keen interest in history.

"So he contacted me last fall and he was wondering if there was enough interest in the area to form a group to kind of get together and talk about the courthouse," said O'Keefe, who is also a member of the Placentia Area Historical Society.

The courthouse when it had a yellow paint job, circa 1960s.

Indeed, a lot has gone on inside the walls of the old courthouse building. According to O'Keefe, it was known as the General Building early on, with a customs office, postal telegraph, constable's residence, jailer's residence, courtroom and magistrate's office all located inside. Social services and a motor vehicle registration office later moved in.

Today, the building is used on a bimonthly basis for circuit court, and it also houses offices for Eastern Health and the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development.

The fact it is still in use today bodes well for the building's future, notes O'Keefe, who adds Upshall informed her the property is also structurally in good shape.

"One of the things that a lot of people mention is it needs to be painted," she said, indicating it's likely been 10 years since the last paint job on the building.

One item on the group's checklist is to get the courthouse recognized as a Registered Heritage Structure. However, the provincial government, as the property's owner, would need to take the initiative to start that process with the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador (HFNL).

According to O'Keefe, there are two other courthouses in Newfoundland originating from the same era as the one in Placentia, with William Henry Churchill responsible for the design on all three. Two of those in Trinity and Greenspond are Registered Heritage Structures.

O'Keefe discussed the issue with HFNL executive director Jerry Dick and learned his organization is actively engaged with government on the matter of applying the heritage designation to more publicly owned properties.

"Basically, we just want to develop awareness about the value of the history and the importance of the building and protect it and promote it as such," she said.

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