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Heritage Preservation in Whitehorse, Yukon

by Murray Lundberg


Dateline: 02/06/98

      Those of you who live in the North already know that the preservation of our historic buildings is a controversial subject, partially because the concept is misunderstood by the majority of people. Our most important buildings are all of relatively recent construction - 100-year-old structures are exceptionally rare. With few exceptions, the buildings were constructed of either logs or milled lumber, and even government buildings are not imposing by current standards. The homes are generally modest cabins or cottages, not stone mansions. Does that devalue them as crucial elements in understanding our history? In Whitehorse, we'll find out very soon what the residents think.

The Old Log Church Museum, Whitehorse The Old Log Church Museum,
Whitehorse

      The history of Whitehorse as a townsite only goes back to 1900, and until the construction of the Alaska Highway, it was little more than a transportation hub which served the capital (Dawson City), the Klondike gold fields, and in the 1920s and '30s, the Mayo/Keno silver mines. As a result, the only early government building remaining is the log cabin built as a telegraph office in 1900, and the surviving homes are virtually all those of members of the working class. The most famous of our historic commercial buildings, the White Pass & Yukon Route railway depot, was built in 1905, but was rebuilt in the 1950s to the point that it bears no resemblance to the original station.

      Interest in heritage issues in Whitehorse, and in the Yukon generally, is shared by a fairly high percentage of the population. Unlike many cities whose historic roots have been sterilized from the soil that they try so desperately to distance themselves from, people who choose to can still feel the past in Whitehorse. With a few private restorations and historic re-creations scattered around the downtown area, and a handful of beautifully-executed murals which come across as sincere efforts to honour our pioneers, the fact that heritage sites and historic events are only briefly mentioned on the City's new Web site is both surprising and disappointing.

      Following extensive consultations, the City of Whitehorse adopted a Heritage Bylaw on April 28, 1997. Section 3 of this Bylaw set the criteria for a Heritage Advisory Committee which was to be established as a component of heritage planning in the city, and on December 8, seven members were appointed to this Committee. These members have a wide range of interests, and as a member, I'm very pleased to see such variety - single-viewpoint advisory committees are doomed to failure virtually from their conception. The committee was immediately put to work, as a result of an application which was made to demolish a historic residence in the downtown core. The owner, although distressed at the furore this has caused around town, has been very cooperative with Council and the Committee. He is well aware of the historic significance of the building, and, while he would prefer to see the Mast House moved rather than demolished, he has plans to develop the property for commercial use, and wants it gone.

The historic Mast House, Whitehorse       The Mast House was built in the summer of 1902 by Dr. F. J. Nicholson, and for most of its early life was lived in by the town's doctor. This part of town has always been a desirable area; in the early years many of upper-scale residents of Whitehorse lived in this area. Although commercial properties are encroaching, it still retains a great deal of charm, a character which is greatly enhanced by the location of two of Whitehorse's most-photographed buildings, the "Log Skyscraper" and the Old Log Church, within a couple of hundred feet of the Mast House.

      In March 1935, Dr. Allan Duncan transferred to Whitehorse from Mayo, and shortly after, he moved into the little hip-roofed cottage near the hospital. Dr. Duncan wasn't impressed with either the house or with Whitehorse:

After a few months the [hospital] board rented a small house for me so that I could leave the noisy hotel. But the house had no insulation and only an old decrepit furnace. It was so cold that water froze in the house at night. There was no running water for houses in Whitehorse in the Thirties and the nurses at the hospital allowed me to use their bathroom provided that I agreed to wash off the ring after each bath. And I equipped my outhouse with a seat lined with rabbit fur that I had brought fom Mayo. (Allan Duncan, Medicine, Madams and Mounties)

The Mast House and the 'Log Skyscraper', downtown Whitehorse       The Heritage Advisory Committee toured the Mast House in January, and an engineer's report on the building's condition has just been received. My first impression when I walked in was that I would like to live there - it's charming, with lots of detail work, and it has been nicely maintained. The basement, however, presents a totally different picture. The basement is a dugout (very common here, where drainage is not a problem). It is in terrible condition, and the engineer confirmed that the house will have to be moved, at least temporarily. As well as the basement problem, the roof structure is far below current building code standards, and has to be upgraded (rebuilt may be a better term). We have been given two cost estimates, one for moving the house to a new location, one for rebuilding it at its present location; they both come in at just under $70,000.

      The Committee is to make a recommendation to Council on February 23. The options discussed at this point cover a wide range, but demolition is not on the option list. Those being weighed include (but are not limited to):

  • restoration on its present site. This is the preferred option, in order to preserve the historic context of the building, and the character of the streetscape. It is also by far the most expensive option, and the most difficult to negotiate;
  • move the building to a "heritage village" to be established. This could be along the waterfront, to the north on what is called the Motorways property, at LePage Park, or at some other location. The options expresseed within the committee vary widely here - some members are advocates, some do not approve of it except as a last resort;
  • move the building to a storage yard for future use. This is the least favourable option - the city already has one building in storage, and "out of sight, out of mind" fits the situation precisely. Structural upgrading of the floor and roof structures will have to be undertaken even with this option, to prevent damage during moving, or to the heavier snow loads which will result from the house being unheated.

    A historic parking lot facade in the alley behind Front Street, Whitehorse A mural facing the parking lot behind the Hougen Centre, on Main Street

          A phone-in show on CBC Radio in January showed the same misconceptions found elsewhere as to the financial costs and effects of initiating a heritage preservation program. The same concerns have been expressed in every one of the hundreds of towns and cities across North America who have faced this issue. Despite the fact that we insist that our situation is unique in the North, there is no proof that that is the case with historic buildings. The most common concern is that it will cost the taxpayers, and the individual property owners affected, huge amounts of money. Thousands of papers, and dozens of books have been written on this issue, and it has been almost universally proven that, while there is an initial cost to the city involved, the economic and social benefits after ten years are substantial.

          I was a member of a heritage advisory committee in Fort Langley, British Columbia from 1984 on - we had strong opposition from the property owners, and a virtual lack of support of any kind from the municipal council. Despite that, building guidelines were enacted and restorations were undertaken - today, Fort Langley is an extremely popular destination for tourists and movie producers. Commercial rents have more than doubled and the amount of commercial space has multiplied six-fold. A similar, though not quite so dramatic, situation occurred in Nelson, BC, which won a Heritage Canada award for their downtown revitalization of historic buildings. In the United States, a register of historic hotels gives an indication of the type of promotion possible from a program of historic preservation.

          For those who insist that the North is a different case, have a look to our neighbours in Fairbanks. They faced the problems associated with educating people about Northern-style historic buildings several years ago, and have been very successful overall (those of you who have been to Alaskaland will understand why I don't give blanket praise, and why I don't support the heritage village concept). In Fairbanks, the third week of May each year has been designated as Historic Preservation Week, during which a variety of events are sponsored - it is this type of promotion that can smooth the path for preservation programs.

          A letter-writing program initiated by the Yukon Historical & Museums Association has resulted in a great deal of mail showing up in City Hall - the problem we face now is how to consolidate that support into a fully-developed historic preservation program in Whitehorse. The City Council is very supportive of the concept, and is giving a high level of support to the advisory committee.

    Update - September 1998: The house was saved by a private buyer. Although it had to be moved 5 blocks, the Mast House remains downtown, and is now in a row of small privately-owned historic homes. The Heritage Advisory Committee continues to work on getting the most important buildings in Whitehorse, both government and private, designated as heritage properties and protected.


    References & Further Reading:

  • Helene Dobrowolsky and Rob Ingram - Edge of the River, Heart of the City (Whitehorse: YHMA, 1994)
  • Allan Duncan - Medicine Madams and Mounties: Stories of a Yukon Doctor, 1933-1947 (Raincoast, 1989)
  • Yukon Historical & Museums Association - Whitehorse Heritage Buildings: A Walking Tour of Yukon's Capital (Whitehorse: YHMA, 1983)

    Photos and text are © 1998-2008 by Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.