The New Year brings with it a special anniversary for a historic building in the heart of downtown Red Deer.
Exuding a striking sense of grandeur, the Old Court House, located at the corner of Ross St. and 49th Ave. is 85 years old this year. The Old Court House, which housed both the Provincial Court and the Court of Queen’s Bench until 1983, has also been designated as a Provincial Historic Resource.
As local historian Michael Dawe explains, there was some lively debate about where the building should be situated prior to the onset of construction back in June of 1930. “City council agreed to arrange a land swap for four lots on the north side of Ross Street, half-way between 48th and 49th Avenues. However, the provincial government thought that this site was too small and too close to the A.G.T. telephone exchange building.”
It was then suggested the court house be built on 48th Ave. east of the current site of City Hall.
But that sat well with virtually no one, as it was thought the site was, “Too low and too hidden from the view of the main business district.
“Incidentally, this site, to which there was such a strong objection, is the same one where the new court house was built in 1981.”
The province suggested the corner of what is now City Hall Park, but council said that area was for City purposes only.
Finally, said Dawe, the then Premier of Alberta – John Brownlee – made a trip to Red Deer to negotiate with City officials and nail down a suitable spot once and for all.
“Yet another site, on the northeast corner of Ross St. and 49th Avenue, was picked. Finally, everyone agreed.”
At last, “The building officially opened with great fanfare on March 6th, 1931.” Dawe said the building was, “The last court house constructed in Alberta with classical features, utilizing high quality materials such as red tapestry brick, red terra cotta roof tiles, marble for the main staircase and Tyndall limestone for the columns, entablature and trim.”
The building served the community well over the years, and was expanded at the back in the 1950s. But eventually the City’s growth made it necessary to have a much bigger facility. The new court house was completed by 1983. “The old court house remained empty for a couple of years, but finally an arrangement was made to sell the building to the City of Red Deer and turn it into a community centre.”
One of the most memorable events held at the court house was the famous murder trial of Robert Raymond Cook in 1959, who was convicted of killing his entire family in Stettler – his father Raymond and stepmother Daisy Cook and his five younger siblings who ranged in age from three to nine. The family was found shot and bludgeoned to death in the garage of their Stettler home.
Cook, who maintained his innocence until the very end, was retried later in Edmonton and again found guilty.
The last man to be hanged in Alberta, he was executed in November of 1960.
Back in 2001, a play about the crime was staged in the very courtroom in Red Deer that the actual proceedings took place in. The End of the Rope, penned by Aaron Coates, chronicles the experiences of Cook and his lawyer Dave MacNaughton during their 18-month battle to evade the noose. Cook had a history of clashes with the law during his short life — prior to the murders, he had been in prison on a robbery charge.
He was eventually apprehended on a farm near Bashaw by police after a sprawling, ambitious manhunt. He was then whisked away to the village’s police office.
He had been in the Ponoka hospital for a time but had escaped, and while he was on the loose, tensions across the province really heated up. “That really got people worried. Where is he? Will there be other people attacked or murdered? It really was a horrible, horrible thing. So there was a massive manhunt to try and find him.”
To this day, questions linger as to Cook’s guilt. He claimed he was fighting a losing battle against a society hungry to pin someone with the crimes.
His alibi of being in Edmonton during the night of the murders also couldn’t be cracked, although pinpointing the times of the deaths wasn’t the exact science it is today. And although he reportedly didn’t always see eye to eye with his folks, some say it’s an enormous stretch to believe he would butcher his entire family.
In a letter to his lawyer, Cook wrote he, “Used to think it was up to the Crown to prove a person guilty, now, I believe different. I know they cannot prove me guilty, for in all truth, I am not. If I hang, murder will be committed in the name of the law.” Near the entrance of the Old Court House building, visitors can find a fascinating collection of newspaper clippings, letters and photos related to the case as well.
Meanwhile, the building, with its unmistakable sense of history, is now called the Old Court House Professional Centre, it now houses several organizations and offices, including the building’s co-owner Richard McDonell of Reserve Fund Planners Ltd. McDonell has a deep appreciation and respect for the building, and points out that his office used to be the judge’s chambers connected to the courtroom.
“This is where Judge Peter Greschuk decided in 1959 that Robert Raymond Cook would hang by the neck until dead,” he noted, adding that years back he was testifying in a civil trial and was standing in the very spot where Cook had proclaimed his innocence.
Today, careful restoration work throughout the building has maintained the polished, sophisticated look of the past, regardless of the changes over the years and the changes in tenants.
And with the provincial designation as a historical resource, there are all kinds of rules as to what precisely can be done to the building as well.
“You really can’t do anything without prior written permission of the (provincial) minister,” he explained. “And we have not tried to push that envelope because we like that idea.”
For McDonell, it’s certainly more than just a place of business.
“I love coming into this building everyday,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.