Hamilton Courthouse:
The Hidden Beauty

The Hamilton Courthouse, the former Dominion Public Building, is impressive from the outside but wait until you see the former Postal Hall.

The photo above does little justice to this architectural masterpiece of marble and brass.

At first glance, the massive bulk of the John Sopinka Courthouse, which fills the corner block of John Street from Main to King, looks austere:

From the Main Street side, which is now the main point of entry, you see this (below). The left hand side with glass and a tower is the new addition, which blends fairly well with the older building to the right. Both pretty austere, still.

But once you get up close, you start to see the details. Look up to the bas relief (that low relief sculpture) over the door on John Street.

What are all those prancing, naked men doing up there on the Hamilton Courthouse?

Well, to answer that question, we have to go back to the history of the building, which was not originally a courthouse. It became the John Sopinka Courthouse in May 1999. But it started out as the Dominion Public Building. It was designed by Hutton and Souter and constructed by the W.H. Yates Construction Company, Limited, a Hamilton firm. It opened September 21, 1936 and it  housed a huge post office (the hall you see in the first photo above) and other government offices including Customs, Taxes, Immigration, Colonization, Relief, Pensions, National Health and RCMP.

I've been digging around to find out who actually designed this bas relief (still looking for the name of the designer, although it appears that the sculptor Louis Temporale likely did the actual carving). No luck so far. I did find a newspaper article from a year or so before it was built saying that the frieze would portray farmers on one side (to represent the West) and lumbermen, a miner, and industrialist, and an electrical engineer to portray the East. It appears that the plans changed a bit by the time it was carved, though.

Here is the left side, representing Western Canada. We appear to have farmers and fishers and a First Nations man bearing furs.

On the right hand side, I can make out what appear to be fishermen (at least I think that is a fishing net of a ship in the background), lumbermen and a miner. The last guy might have an anvil so perhaps he is the blacksmith. No "industrialist" or "electrical engineers" as far as I can tell... unless the naked guy hauling the log is a businessman who lost his shirt (and pants) in the 1930s Great Depression.

The central image is quite striking. We leave the (roughly) contemporary period and suddenly find ourselves in the Roman era, where tributes are bringing their wealth to the emperor. I'm guessing this is a (perhaps) jocular reference to the tax office in the building. The workers  are bringing their bounty to the tax man. Income tax had just been introduced in 1917, less than 2 decades before the building was built.

Before we go inside, here is another lovely little detail from the exterior:

And here is the historic plaque:

Inside Hamilton Courthouse

Since this is a functioning courthouse, you have to go through security to get inside the building. It's set up like airport security so be prepared to walk through a metal detector and let the guard look inside any bags you have (they are looking for weapons). If you enter through the King Street side of the building, once you pass the security, you'll come to the former lobby for the post office hall. Sorry the picture is a bit dark:

The elevators are brass and have this inner panel that lights up from inside. Keep going past this lobby and you'll find yourself in that beautiful post office hall pictured above. Here it is again, from another angle:

The map is made of ceramic.

It's interesting to note that this luxurious beauty was built in the heart of the Depression. A pamphlet which is available in the public library (Souvenir Book Dominion Public Building, published by postal employees the year it opened) explains that the building was part of the government's "construction programme of recovery" ... Money was poured into construction, which "gave employment to thousands of citizens, as well as being a stimulus to other smaller industries."

Every little detail was given attention -- even the lighting:

The postal hall closed in 1991, several years before I moved to Hamilton. Sadly, I never got the chance to purchase stamps here. I imagine that it must have been quite a treat for tired office workers to go and stand in line at the post office and enjoy these lovely surroundings while they waited. Unfortunately, we can't do that anymore, but we can stop in for a brief visit to the Hamilton courthouse and contemplate the beauty that a wiser generation left behind.

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