Public using the wooden stage that surrounds a tree during one of many festivals held in Officers' Square
Festival crowd listening to a band on the main stage in Officers' Square in front of the Fredericton Region Museum
Crowd beginning to form for a free outdoor concert as part of the Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival in Officers' Square
Sandblasted & wrought iron signage for Officers' Square
Tennis in Officers' Square in front of the Married Quarters (now Fredericton Region Museum)
Couple watching concert on Officers' Square main stage
View of the crowd during a concert in Officers' Square
For 230 years and counting, Officers’ Square has been Fredericton’s main public gathering space. Back in its heyday, it started off as the soldiers’ training grounds and was located adjacent to the military barracks. Gradually, it has come to form a part of a whole row of public, civic, and institutional uses along Queen Street, the historic core´s main axis. Officers´ Square lies in the centre of this historic and cultural area, equidistant from City Hall to the west as it is to the Provincial Parliament Building to the east.
Officers’ Square has a full view of the St. John River as a spectacular backdrop on its northern side. The river is an essential component of Fredericton’s identity and the fact that the square is “open” on that side provides a visual connection—and a symbolic one as well—to the elements of nature which helped define Fredericton since its beginnings. On the three other sides, Officers’ Square is bounded by history in the form of an old building that dates back to 1839 (the former Officers’ Quarters, now the York-Sunbury Museum), by government (federal offices), and by residences, business offices, restaurants, and shops which come to represent the life of the town.
All of these adjacent uses add up to a strong residential, employment, and touristic base for this part of the downtown area, and it is this base that maintains Officers’ Square constantly used. Office workers take their outdoor lunches on the square’s benches, visitors and locals alike spend many days and evenings taking part in free local musical & theatrical entertainment, skating to the music on the outdoor rink or going to the many festivals held in Officer’s Square. This mix of people also provides eyes on the street for informal vigilance, making Officers’ Square one of the safest places in the city.
As for its layout, the square itself is sunken in about one metre below the level of the sidewalk along Queen Street. This creates a second feeling of enclosure for those who descend into the square. An old stone wall lined with cast iron fencing on top delineates the square’s boundaries on the south and east sides in a rustic but refined manner, complementing the surrounding foliage, heritage, and a motley assortment of architectural styles that range from the Georgian and Victorian to the Second Empire and Beaux-Arts to institutional Art Deco and Modern.
The iron fencing along two sides of Officers’ Square also serves to decorate the sidewalks along Queen Street and St. Anne’s Point Drive. Signage, which is designed to contribute to the character of the historic district, also identifies key places for residents and visitors alike. These signs are placed on the periphery of the square to help orient the passers-by on the sidewalk.
Officers’ Square is known as Fredericton’s Cultural-Festival-Craft Centre, one of the most dynamically used spaces in Atlantic Canada. Diverse social and cultural groups use it for celebrations and other forms of enjoyment. It is the major congregation space for the city’s most important public festivals and events, such as the Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival (the largest annual music festival in Atlantic Canada), the Maritime Country Fest, celebrations by the Acadian, Aboriginal, Gay & Lesbian, and Multicultural communities (among others), free theatre performances and a musical concert series, culinary fairs, and the daily changing of the guard ceremony during the summer months. It also provides a start and finish point for events both athletic, like the Fredericton Marathon, and fundraisers for numerous other causes. Smaller events also take place to welcome new students to Fredericton’s universities, and the peculiar “12 Homeless Hours” in which children make cardboard boxes and camp out overnight in an exercise to make them aware of the plight of homeless persons.
In one corner of the square, there is a building that contains public washrooms and offices for the event organizers. These offices also contain storage room for props and costumes, and serve as the base for the logistics of the organization of the events. In the summertime, this space serves as the base for the changing of the guard ceremony.
On one of the three access points along Queen Street, there is a ramp for wheelchair users, but also for rolling in all the equipment that is used for the logistics of the public events. As for modes of transportation, the square is used by cyclists, in-line skaters, and skateboarders, but mostly, by pedestrians. All types of people are seen sitting on its benches or lying down on its lawns, from the elderly to teenagers, from urban professionals to students.
An ice skating rink is formed in the winter by freezing a thick coat of water in the middle of the square, usually bound on all sides by heaps of snow. This keeps the square in use even on cold days. In the non-winter months meditation, tai chi, and music rehearsals take place, among many other daily activities.
Besides protecting its trees, there are functions that take place specifically underneath the trees’ shade, with a small stage being carefully placed around a tree trunk for family-based theatre and special places to sit under the foliage during concerts. Also, the view of the river from the square is framed by the museum and the lighthouse, thus enhancing the appreciation of Fredericton’s main body of water and erstwhile link to the outside world.
Fredericton is as much a city of local folk as it is a meeting place for outsiders. The square’s aperture to the river gives it a sense of openness in terms of population migration (everyone is welcome), as well as a sense of economic vitality (trade with the rest of the region, country, and world), and a respect for the environment. The olden look of the square itself reminds people of the history behind its walls and foundations. More importantly, the fact that people use this heritage space for modern day activities provides a fitting connection between what Fredericton was before and what it is now.
The most salient feature of the square is the stage that was built in front of the arcade on the east side of the Officers’ Quarters (now the Fredericton Region Museum). The stage faces the centre of the square and it serves as the main performance space for the events taking place there. The backdrop of the old quarters and the possibility to hang banners and other signage relating to the event allow for the integration of old and new in a very respectful manner. The fact that these public events have access to protected heritage structures elevates the importance of public life in the minds of people.
In addition to the stage, there is a statue in the middle of the square of Lord Beaverbrook, a local patron of the arts, businessman, and a generous contributor to many of the city’s major educational and cultural infrastructure projects. The monument serves as a tribute to a personality whose contributions have made Fredericton and New Brunswick what it is today. Furthermore, there are two canons preserved from the previous century to remind everyone of the military function that Officers’ Square used to hold for the British army. Last, but not least, a sculpture of a group of beavers adds a distinct national symbol to this most functional of local spaces.
The space feels like it sits at a crossroads, not only of two of the most important of the city’s roads, but in the axis of a whole row of important civic institutions and historical structures. The authorities of the time—mainly military—chose to put their training grounds adjacent to the military compound. With time, these training grounds adapted to the needs of the city, from a military use to a public use. The planning authorities were very aware that the strategic location of Officers’ Square along the city’s most important axis, Queen Street, was going to elevate its function and become the city’s prime meeting place. The fact that modernity and antiquity come together in one common setting, and that people of every generation have access to the enjoyment of what takes place in this public square, give the space a validity like that of any other functional and successful public space in the world. Scale doesn’t matter, what matters is that civic life is supported by its institutions, decorated by nature and history, and energized by its citizens.