Klondike Korner: What’s So Important About the Old CIBC Building?

The recent purchase of the Old CIBC Building on Front Street by The City of Dawson has raised interest across the nation.

The price tag of $170,000 was a bit startling, but it’s the resolution to a problem that has been festering since 1989 when the bank moved out and sold it to a private landowner.

The CIBC deserted its original home just one year after the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the building as a National Historic Site. You might think this would have protected it from decay, but it didn’t.

The Bank of Commerce (before the merger with the Imperial Bank of Canada in 1961), arrived in Dawson at the behest of the Dominion Government to set up banking in 1898, and the present building was erected in 1901.

As the plaque mounted on the boulder says, “This Renaissance Revival building is one of Canada’s finest surviving structures clad in decorative pressed metal.” The metal is shaped and painted to look like the stone buildings that the style imitates.

There aren’t very many of these buildings left in Canada — and Dawson has two of them, the other one being the Masonic Lodge four blocks up Queen Street. It started out as a Carnegie Library.

Another reason it’s important is explained by a second plaque near the boarded up front door:

“Robert Service was among the clerks who worked here, before his poetry earned him financial independence and the honourary title ‘Bard of the Yukon.'”

The building is one of the first things visitors driving along Front Street see. But they are left to wonder why such a charming building with such obvious potential has been allowed to crumble so badly.

I’ve been listening to visitors complain for the last 24 years, and the umbrage expressed at regular meetings of the Klondike Visitors Association, the Chamber of Commerce and Municipal Council meetings is legendary.

It sank into the ground after the flood of 1979 and it now has a full basement foundation that it did not have when the bank owned it. But the paint has peeled, some of the tin has blown off (and apparently been salvaged) and all the windows were broken out and boarded up years ago.

Now, after a legal struggle that began in the summer of 2011 and ended with the City buying the building rather than expropriating it, there is a chance that it may become attractive and useful once again.

The best use would be to make it a bank once more, and the restoration drawings by Greg Hakonson (who saved both the Odd Fellows Hall and the building that is now the Yukon School of Visual Arts) give me hope that something along those lines could happen.

After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.

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