Case study: Thunder Bay District Courthouse

Thunder Bay District Courthouse (Photo: Courthouse Hotel)

Photo: Thunder Bay District Courthouse (Photo: Courthouse Hotel)


Kiki Aravopoulos

Economics of heritage, Buildings and architecture, Community, Adaptive reuse

Published Date: Oct 01, 2019

Location: 277 Camelot Street, Thunder Bay
Owner: David Sun, Business owner/Investor
Partners: Ascend Hotels
Original use: Courthouse
Current use: Hotel

The former Thunder Bay District Courthouse sits perched atop a ridge overlooking the dramatic land formation Sleeping Giant. Built in 1924, the classical Edwardian beaux-arts courthouse was closed in 2014, and the lands became surplus to the Ontario government. In 2017, the property was purchased from the government by investor David Sun and has been protected with an Ontario Heritage Trust conservation easement to ensure that the provincial significance of the property is preserved and any changes are managed in a manner consistent with sound conservation principles.

The courthouse underwent a two-year adaptive reuse project and opened as the Courthouse Hotel in May 2019. The exterior of the courthouse is virtually unchanged, thus preserving its significant heritage features – including the Tyndall limestone trim and architectural details. The property also maintains its expansive front lawn and views of the Sleeping Giant. On the interior, the courtroom itself now functions as a ballroom with the coffered-ceiling, Corinthian pilasters, egg-and-dart frieze, and woodwork preserved.

Recently, we had a chance to ask owner David Sun a few questions and to reflect on his experience working on a large-scale adaptive reuse project of this provincially significant heritage building.

Thunder Bay District Courthouse ballroom (Photo: Courthouse Hotel)

1. How did you learn that the Thunder Bay District Courthouse was for sale? Were you looking to purchase a heritage property for an adaptive reuse project? Had you invested in a heritage property before?

I came across the listing for the Thunder Bay Courthouse on the MLS system and was quite intrigued by the property. This is the first heritage property that I have invested in.

I saw great potential in the facility and became quite interested in taking on an adaptive reuse project of my own.

2. What was the most challenging part of the adaptive reuse of the Thunder Bay Courthouse? What was the most rewarding part of the project?

Overall, it has truly been such an amazing and rewarding experience. Obviously, a project of this nature comes with certain challenges. There were certain elements that we were required to preserve through the Ontario Heritage Trust easement agreement, but beyond that, we also made every effort to preserve and incorporate as much of the building’s history and character into our hotel as possible. For example, there were glass panels above certain guestroom doors from the upper floor original offices that I loved and really wanted to preserve. We had to work in coordination with the fire and building codes to ensure that everything was safe and up to modern standards while, at the same time, attempting to preserve all of these unique and original touches.

3. How did you manage the requirements of the heritage easement, Building Code Act, accessibility and the hotel chain? Were they ever in competition with one another? How did you balance all the requirements?

The Courthouse Hotel is a member of the Ascend Hotel Collection with Choice Hotels. The Ascend Hotel Collection is a portfolio of historical, boutique, one-of-a-kind hotels. The majority of the properties within the collection are historical buildings that have a true cultural significance within their communities, which made a perfect match for us. Due to this fact, we did not experience any of the typical issues that one would come across with a more standardized hotel chain. We were able to incorporate the Ascend Hotel brand easily into the property with little to no limitations.

4. How many people does the hotel employ? How many were involved in the adaptive reuse? What type of skilled tradespeople did you have to hire (i.e., carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc.)? Were the individuals you hired from the local community?

The hotel currently employs a staff of 15 employees. There were a total of six different contractor companies used for the adaptive reuse project, with various numbers of workers throughout the process – including carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc. All the companies were local, including the companies used for décor and interior design.

5. How has the community responded?

We have received an overwhelmingly positive response from the community. It is so nice to hear and read all the amazing comments about the transformation. It is so humbling to hear so many people thankful that the building was repurposed into something that the community could appreciate and enjoy. We have had previous judges, lawyers, employees and even citizens who served on jury duty stop by the hotel to see what we have done to the place. It is quite an amazing experience to hear about the history and all the stories and experiences that people have had in the building over the years.

Source: Interview by Kiki Aravopoulos, Easement Program Coordinator with the Ontario Heritage Trust. Photos courtesy of David Sun.