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100 years of history

100 years ago an unprecedented building was opened in the Okanagan.

Designed by, famous Vancouver and Victoria architect, Thomas Hooper the new prize building of the interior, the Vernon Courthouse, opened its doors.

“This building has lasted a hundred years and in this part of the world a hundred years is a long time,” laughed Rob Culos, President of Vernon Bar Association.

“It is one of the loveliest public buildings in the province and certainly in the interior it is one of the oldest public buildings in consistent use, which makes it very noteworthy in my opinion,”

At the time the Vernon Courthouse was built the North Okanagan was booming, it was central hub of the Okanagan and bursting at the seams.

Just over twenty years earlier the, now gone, Brick Courthouse was built in Vernon but due to the quick population growth it was no longer good enough.

“That was a nice little building, but you see Vernon quickly outgrew that. It was built in 1892 and then during the 1890's the Europeans, mostly the English and Belgians, discovered that the North Okanagan was the best apple-growing region in the whole world.

So there was a huge and rapid development in the next 20 years causing an influx of people. So what was a fairly decent courthouse of the time was just not adequate anymore,” said Culos.

MLA for Vernon at the time and Minister of Finance Price Ellison, (a famous Okanagan rancher with one of the largest wheat and stock farms in the area) made it his goal to have a new courthouse built in Vernon for the interior.

“In 1909, discussions begun and in 1911 funds were appropriated. Vernon was the first courthouse of 10 major buildings to be built in the interior.”

When the building was completed it not only housed courtrooms but also government offices for a number of departments.

In a November 1911 edition of the Vernon News they explain the building plans.

“The building will be two stories high with a basement the full size of the building. It will contain ample accommodation for courtrooms, government offices, the fire warden, school inspector, horticultural officers and other departments connected with provincial affairs. It will be constructed with fine red granite from the quarries below Okanagan Landing and will the largest, handsomest and most costly government building in the interior.”

And it wasn’t all stuffy politics and law for the building it was a real social hub of the time, even known for holding some swinging ballroom socials between WWI and WWII in the two story major courtroom, now known as 301.

Culos says the building was designed and built to last, a building to stand the test of time, which it has and continues to do.

“The way the building was constructed is largely reinforced concrete, the floors are 12 inches thick so it is really sturdy building.”

The courthouse was built by John Burns & Son of Nelson and measured 150 feet by 75 feet at a cost of $198,876, a stark difference to the Brick Courthouse of 1892 that cost only $8,192 and was 54 feet by 47 feet with a tin roof and brick.

“I think $200,000 was an awful lot of money back in those days considering you could get buy a house for $500,” laughed Culos.

100 carloads of granite, 4,000,000 bricks, 3,000 yards of gravel, 12 carloads of cement, one carload of reinforced steel and 4,000 feet of pipe conduits were used in its construction.

The building was meant to be reminiscent of a Greek temple, with grandiose columns and an imposing granite facade.

Inside there is BC and Italian marble, ornate woodwork and the grand two story courtroom and balcony.

Some may wonder why the courthouse was not built in Kelowna, as it has the biggest population in the Okanagan, but Culos says that at the time, Vernon was the place to be.

“Kelowna has long since outgrown Vernon but in the early part of 1900's Vernon was the major centre and the Vernon courthouse probably would have served Kelowna as well. When it was built it was the BC Supreme Court for everywhere between the border and Revelstoke,” said Culos.

For him and many other lawyers, judges, law professionals, and even some reporters who work in the building, it’s the history the building represents that makes it such an amazing building.  

“I have appeared in all five courtrooms at different times. But to go into that lovely big courtroom, every-time I just enjoy being there. You can almost imagine the generations of lawyers and judges and citizens who have been in that room, arguing their cases or being tried or whatever it was, just having their day in court,” smiled Culos.

In recognition of this beautiful old piece of history an open house and celebration for the courthouse is being held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday April 12.

“A time when the public can come into the courthouse and get tours of the courthouse and meet with people from various groups. From police to sheriffs, legal aid people, native court workers, the restorative justice society, victim services. There will also be politicians there, cake and hotdogs, a real fun event!” explained Culos.

In additional a special ‘sitting of the court’ will be held around 1:30 p.m. for the public to see a real courtroom in action.

“This is a special new announcement, and this is exciting for me as a lawyer, that there is going to be a special sitting of the court. The court sits on a regular bases to hear cases, but there is such a thing as a special sitting which is convened for the sole purpose of some type of ceremony,”

The most common is when a new lawyer is called to the bar but in this case the court will convene for the purpose of commemorating this building.

“So there will be a number of judges in attendance and it will be formal court. The Judges will have robes on, I will be there with my court robes on and I will address the court formally as though it were a real court case in session,” said an excited Culos.

He adds that the public are warmly welcomed and feels young people who have an interest in careers in the field should come see what it is like and ask any questions they may have to the professionals who will be in attendance.

“Any young people who would want to meet police or sheriffs, or other professionals who work in the justice system. Maybe they have questions about careers, they should come.”

Culos says there will also be a female RCMP member in uniform, and that girls interested in policing are encouraged to come. A male RCMP member will also be in attendance in his full red serge.

“Which Canadian doesn’t like to see a real live RCMP constable in their red serge!” boasted Culos.

Courthouse Tours will be at 10:00, 11:00 and 12:00

Doors are open from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

Grand Mock Trials are at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.

Fun Vernon Courthouse facts:

  • The courthouse opened its doors in December 1914;
  • Scotch stonemasons went on strike during the construction due to the lack of shelter at the quarry. The courthouse was finished by Scandinavian workers who took over after the pillars were erected;
  • The lintel stone (horizontal crosspieces above the door) had to cut in half to be brought from the quarry because of their weight and size;
  • The granite was taken by boat to O.K. Landing, by train to Vernon station and then by horse and wagon to the courthouse;
  • Four years after completion the north corner of the building settled and had to be shored up;
  • The stone steps were added after completion; and
  • A room at the south end of the courthouse on the second floor was used as an assembly hall in the 1920's. Dances were often held there

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