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Court House Refurbishment an Ode to City’s Past

Court House Refurbishment an Ode to City’s Past

A century after it was constructed, Cairns Regional Council will tonight unveil the refurbished and restored Cairns Court House, returning the building to its architectural glory days and preserving an important part of the city’s history.

His Excellency the Honourable Paul de Jersey AC, Governor of Queensland, will be joined by Cairns Mayor Bob Manning tonight at a special function at the refurbished Court House to officially open the building.

Built from 1919-1921, Council acquired the site in 2016 for $5.75 million and has spent $8.28 million to restore the building, which was heritage listed in 1992.

Cairns Mayor Bob Manning stressed the importance of returning such a significant building to public ownership.

“This will ensure it will be properly protected and celebrated, given an appropriate place in our city’s history, and take its rightful place alongside our other heritage civic buildings,” Cr Manning said.

“Old buildings serve as a reminder of a city’s past and provide a window into its cultural identity, which is why the restoration of heritage sites, such as this one, is essential in preserving of our city’s past.”

A grant of $2.1 million from the Australian Government’s Regional Jobs Investment Package (RJIP) assisted with the project.

Federal Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch said the project significantly contributed to the goal of Cairns’ status as the Arts and Cultural Capital of Northern Australia.

“The project has increased the available space for the co-located Cairns Regional Gallery by creating a large open space for artworks, events and tours and by integrating this development into the vast Gallery precinct in the Cairns CBD,” Mr Entsch said.

“It will also support industry sectors such as creative artists, musicians, writers, performers, professional photographic services, film and video production, architectural services, infrastructure hire, and the building and tourism sectors.”

Cr Manning said the building was the cornerstone of the Cairns Gallery Precinct.

“This is stage one of a broader art precinct that will help elevate our city’s cultural standing to the regional arts capital of Northern Australia, and provide a space for our region’s talented artists to showcase their works and entice high quality touring exhibitions,” Cr Manning said.

“It will provide, for the first time, dedicated places in which to highlight our talented indigenous artists and the unique artforms they create.

“This exposure to the national and global stage will drive demand for authentic indigenous art, which will increase the opportunity for employment pathways and hopefully be an inspiration for our youth to pursue creative endeavours.

“Galleries in this new precinct will not only bring people together physically but also culturally.”


The Celebration – public open day in 2021

Council is planning a public open day in early 2021 to showcase the newly refurbished and restored building.

While it will be officially opened tonight, the Cairns Court House will remain closed to the public to allow for the standard defect liability period post construction.

“We wanted to open this magnificent building this year to give the arts community, which was especially impacted by the COVID crisis, something to celebrate as we enter the new year with a sense of optimism after such a challenging 2020,” Mayor Bob Manning said.

“However, we need a little more time to complete all the works before we can open to the doors to the public and are planning to hold an open day in early 2021 for the whole of the community.”


The Restoration – weaving the old with the new

The Court House site looks decidedly different to the one Council acquired four years ago.

Gone is the sterile powder-coated fence that served as the site’s entrance during its days as the Cairns Courthouse Hotel.

Today, the grounds are open to allow the public to amber along the curved pathways and the new gardens and landscaping, which are complemented by contemporary ambient lighting designed to emphasis the historic architecture of the building’s exterior.

A section of the original concrete baluster at the front of the building has been retained but turned to accommodate the installation of an all abilities access ramp.  

New roofing has been installed, which along with other upgrades have improved the building’s cyclone resistance to better safeguard artworks.  

As visitors enter through the front of the building, their attention will undoubtedly be drawn to the repainted and restored coat of arms above the front entrance, featuring a lion on the left and a chained unicorn on the right.

The lion and the unicorn are symbols that traditionally appear on the Royal Coat of Arms for the United Kingdom, which symbolises the monarch as having judicial authority in the Commonwealth, and therefore are commonly displayed at judicial buildings.

A similar coat of arms is located inside the building, in the main courtroom, which along with the former bailiff and clerks’ room, has been transformed into a gallery space that retains the ambience of the historical architecture, while subtly incorporating contemporary technology.

Modern lighting and acoustics, including a new soundproofed ceiling, add to the newly installed wooden floors, which complement the restored arched windows and heritage fittings.

Cleverly, new air-conditioning ventilation has been incorporated into the upper archways, maintaining the aesthetics of the building, while ensuring the space is appropriate for the display of art pieces and provides comfort for visitors.

Another highlight are sections of polished, exposed concrete columns, which display striking coloured river stones that were included in the century-old cement mix.  

Restorative work on the verandas has seen the refurbishment of the decking and stairs, while extensive drainage has been installed along with new landscaping and access points.


The Finds – artefacts unearthed

A selection of artefacts unearthed from the grounds during the refurbishment will be placed on display at the Court House next year.

An array of buried archaeological materials were uncovered within the grounds, which was not surprising, considering the prior history of this site as part of a former Police Reserve, which was gazetted in 1876.

Items unearthed included leg irons (prisoners’ shackles), large old paint tins, horseshoes, tobacco tins, a variety of ceramic fragments and old glass bottles, some of which related specifically to Cairns manufacturing.


The Vision – Cairns Gallery Precinct

The Cairns Gallery Precinct project proposes to connect the existing Cairns Art Gallery, the Court House, and the Old Mulgrave Shire Council building (which needs to be refurbished), and add a new world-class, purpose-built gallery.

The precinct will almost triple the existing exhibition space, refurbish heritage spaces, and create new galleries, public spaces and jobs.

Cr Manning said that along with cultural benefits associated with improving the city’s artistic offerings, it also made good business sense.

“A Business Case in 2019 clearly identified that Cairns currently has insufficient public gallery space, particularly to drive additional cultural visitation – globally considered to be a target area for growth within the tourism industry,” Cr Manning said.

“The business case indicates an additional $20.7 million could be generated by added annual visitation to this new precinct and it could generate 157 jobs during the construction phase, and 177 ongoing operational full-time positions.”


The History – timeline

1876: Gazetted as a Police Reserve.

1922: Court room used for the first time (17 January).

1929: Gardens in front of the building were created.

1959: False acoustic ceiling installed and fixed to the existing beams to improve acoustics.

1968: Building was extended to add a second court room and a magistrate’s court.

1992: The building was vacated when the new courthouse and police station complex opened in Sheridan Street.

1992: On 21 October the building was listed on the Queensland Heritage Register.

1998: Renovated as the Cairns Courthouse Hotel.

2016: Council acquires the Cairns Courthouse Hotel site.

2019: Work starts on the Court House refurbishment.

2020: Official opening of the refurbished Court House building.


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