Bringing New Life into Old Buildings

I have written a number of columns about Dawson’s habit of recycling building for other purposes. The Old Territorial Courthouse, which has to be passed by everyone entering the town on Front Street, is a prime example of this practice.

Right after the Gold Rush, the federal government was anxious to prove to the world that the new territory was indeed Canadian land. By then the Alaska Panhandle Dispute, which we would eventually lose when the British government caved in to the Americans, was well under way and the territory was packed with American stampeders.

The government was determined to assert Canadian sovereignty in the Yukon and so Thomas Fuller, who would later become the Chief Architect of the federal Department of Public Works, was commissioned to design some very official and stately looking buildings. These included the Old Territorial Administration Building (or OTAB, now the Dawson City Museum), the Old Post Office, the Commissioner’s Residence, the Telegraph Office (now the museum director’s home), the Dawson Public School (which burned in the late 1950s), and the Courthouse.

As time passed many of the legal functions of the Courthouse were transferred to the OTAB and so, when St. Mary’s Hospital burned down, both the Courthouse and the Residence were pressed into service as hospital buildings.

By the 1980s, it was the HQ for Parks administration and, after an earlier reduction in the Parks’ presence in the Dawson, was subsequently leased out to the territorial government, which used the space for Yukon College, a dentist’s office, offices for Yukon Housing, the Dept. of Education and several other functions.

These were all shuffled off to locations in other buildings when it became clear that work needed to be done on the Courthouse, after many years of tenants complaining about air quality issues. That work was begun just before the Park’s Canada budget cuts in 2012, and came to a halt when the money was not available.

Now, $13.7 million of that $29 million cut has been restored to the agency in the Yukon, and $812,000 has been assigned to the Old Courthouse, to finish what had been started.

According to Klondike National Historic Site Superintendent David Rohatensky, the work is quite extensive.

“A new foundation is being constructed to replace the existing one,” he said. “A complete new foundation is being constructed which will improve stability, resist water penetration, and improve perimeter drainage to further protect the building.”

The work is being done by Southpaw Construction Ltd., of Whitehorse, and has been proceeding since early in June, although no information was available about the project until the official announcement, nearly two months later. It’s expected to be completed this month.

“The work involves temporarily supporting the building such that the existing foundation walls can be removed and replaced,” Rohatensky says. “The use of modern materials, improved water resistance and installation of a perimeter drain are all hoped to ensure the building remains dry during times of high water table, associated with high river levels in the spring.”

Once all this is complete, there’s no telling what new uses will be found for this venerable old structure.

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