While doing what I call my Berton House exit interview with Sara Tilley, the latest writer-in-residence, she remarked that one of the things that made her feel comfortable and at home here was the colourful palette of our buildings. It reminded her of buildings in Newfoundland.
That’s quite true. I noticed the colours, particularly in the outport villages, when I visited there in 1980.
My first visit to Dawson was two years earlier than that and, in those days, there wasn’t much colour to be seen in the Klondike. Most buildings were various shades of grey, brown and dirty white. They were also covered with dust.
Someone once told me this was the result of mixing together all the leftover paint that ever ended up in town, but I don’t know if that’s true.
When we moved here the bright blue house with the orange trim on 8th Avenue was quite startling, so much so that the kids in the neighbourhood used to call it “the Smurf House”.
That wouldn’t happen now.
Something I call the Ted Harrison Effect seemed to hit Dawson in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There was a poster that Harrison made for the new Robert Service School in 1989 in which the institutional grey of the building was rendered in orange with yellow and blue trim.
Of course I don’t really think that’s to blame, if you wanted to call it blame, but the greater variety of house colours seemed to appear about the same time.
One construction company, White Ram, went with a brighter set of colours and even used a shade of pink on its largest bed and breakfast. When it was repainted some years later, the building acquired a more unfortunate shade, one that caused a number of us to refer to it as the Pepto-Bismol Palace.
The real drive for change came from Holland America, whose Westmark Hotel had a number of false fronts hiding some little cabins at the rear of their main compound. I recall coming back from a summer vacation trip, driving along 4th Avenue and stopping in amazement.
The painter, a friend, saw us and came running out, brush in hand.
“Don’t blame me,” he said ruefully. “They picked the colours.”
There wasn’t anything illegal about the colours. Dawson’s historic building code doesn’t prohibit such shades, no matter what it may have to say about doors, windows and siding. But they were very different from what we were used to.
The Westmark annex, on the east side of 5th Avenue from the original buildings, was a pretty boring grey when it was first completed. Now, both it and the buildings on the west side of the street show a rainbow of shades.
The final blow to those who wanted to hold the line on paint jobs in the 1990s came when Parks Canada restored the Commissioner’s Residence. It had been white for many years, but during the period of George and Martha Black’s residency, it had been a golden yellow, and that’s the colour it is now, with white and green trim.
People were upset, but Parks pointed out that the colour was historically accurate, and that pretty much ended the discussion.
If the Smurf House were to be appearing for the first time today, no one would notice it at all.
Oh, and we do still have the dust.