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Living High in Whitehorse

by Darrell Hookey

    It is the most prestigious address in Whitehorse: 210 Lambert Street.

    But in a city that prides itself on a dearth of prestigious addresses, it is necessary to explain this is the address of the log skyscraper. The most photographed building in Whitehorse is four log cabins built one on top of the other.

    And the person who has lived on the very top these past eleven and a half years is, by her own words, "a paradox". Lorene Robertson says she is a private person ... yet she lives in a tourist attraction.

    She is fascinated with interesting buildings ... yet she didnít know her home was built by Martin Berrigan at the age of 78.

    Tourists consider Robertson a paradox as well. They want her to be a "Colourful Five Percenter". If she lives in a weird building then she must be weird. Yet they find her to be ordinary. Actually, very ordinary.

    She is an English teacher, not a prospector scrambling for a grubstake between claims. And she knows how to work a wardrobe for the appropriate look.

    Robertson considers herself so normal, she isnít even sure why she is being interviewed. Not surprised, though, having turned down six interviews and a documentary in the past two years.

    She agreed this time because she is moving this weekend. The only claim to fame she is willing to accept is being the person who has lived in the skyscraper the longest ... until proven otherwise, of course.

    Although being a private person, Robertson does accept the fact she is living in a famous building. Every year, sometime in May, she will look out her kitchen window and see her first tourist of the season aiming a camera up at her home.

    "Great Aunt Mable in Maine has a picture of me," she concedes with an understanding smile. She will allow her photograph to be taken when sitting out on her deck, but will head indoors when she sees a telephoto lens.

    Tourists rarely come upstairs and are embarrassed when they realize they have intruded on someoneís home. Those who approach her as she arrives or leaves her home will most often ask, "Do you have plumbing?"


    The next most popular question is, "Do you actually live there?" followed closely by, "Do you actually live there during the winter?"

    Yes and yes.

    Robertson says the skyscraper is very well insulated and the heat from the suite below keeps her floor warm. An electric heater is all that is needed to bump the temperature up sometimes.

    And yes, it is windy up there. And no, the interior is dry walled. And yes, the building sways when there is an earthquake.

    If she is to be given any credit at all, it should be for living in such a small home.

    Immediately to the left of the front door is her bed. Five paces into the single room you stop at a bookshelf in front of a window. Three paces from her bed is the kitchen, equipped with a 12-cubic-foot refrigerator, toaster oven, two-element counter-top stove, in-counter griddle and a small sink. A bar-top counter separates the kitchen from the bedroom/livingroom and acts as a table. Her bathroom is just to the right of the front door and is no larger than an airlinerís ... if airliners had bathtubs.

    To live in such a small place she has to be "acutely organized" and able to consume very little. It takes a lot of work, says Robertson. If something comes in, then something has to go out.

    But she does "cheat". The tenants of the log skyscraper share a shed in their gated, pleasantly rustic yard. And she has a cabin an hourís drive from Whitehorse. And although she is not allowed to store items on the deck, to maintain its unique character, it does give her a lot of extra room to move.

    The deck wraps around her suite 360 degrees. Her neighbours can tell what time of day it is by seeing which side she is relaxing on to catch the sun. It is a mixed blessing that the windows in her suite wrap 360 degrees around as well. It gives her natural light throughout the day, yet there is little wall space to hang pictures.

    People are always giving her pictures of the log skyscraper. Some of these have made it only as far as her refrigerator door.

    Robertson has lived in small cabins before. She says she is "interested in the notion of small places" and is all the more fascinated if the home is unusual.

    She is intrigued by people she has heard about living in a cedar stump. And there is someone living in a converted water tower. Her home ceased to be unusual when it became the place she lived. But it is still a home with good light, character and a good view.

    Unfortunately, as the city grows, her view is becoming more obscured. Her east window is almost filled with the solid wall of an office building. Her north-facing door used to look down on an old house ... now it looks down on a parking lot.

    A skill she has developed is "selective seeing". She loves the view of Grey Mountain and yet her mind just doesnít register the gas station in the foreground. She also boasts a view of Golden Horn ... just above the medical building. And, when there are no leaves on the trees, she can see a piece of the Yukon River between the YTG building and the new tourism building.

    Besides the mountains and trees, she likes to watch the townsfolk go about their business below her fourth-storey perch. "Itís like being in a birdís nest," she says. "I think I observe people more than I am observed by them."

    When the log skyscraper became a heritage building last year, the uncertainty of its status started her thinking of purchasing a new home.

    Her new place has four times as much room allowing her to spread out a little. And, perhaps surprisingly, it has a better view. As a bonus, she barely gushes, it has a washer and dryer.

    Robertson says she is sad to leave the log skyscraper. Mostly she is sad to leave the community of friends beneath her. Whenever an opening came up, the tenants were given a chance to move up a floor and recommend someone else to take the empty suite. It was a great way to keep the "apartment building" filled with quiet, respectful neighbours.

    Moving day is this weekend and is being marked by a quiet dinner. Her neigbour below her in Suite No. 3 will move up to the top. No. 1 on the ground floor moves up to No. 3 and No. 2 is staying put.

    At least moving day will remind her of another reason she is finally leaving: All those stairs.