Dawson City’s venerable Westminster Hotel is undergoing a major structural renovation to ensure it remains in business, thanks to financial help from the Yukon government.
Owner Duncan Spriggs said the ongoing foundation work is essential if the hotel is to stay afloat, literally.
“Remember back in the ‘80s when they pulled down the Whitehorse Inn? If you don’t maintain its profitability, it will inevitably become an economic casualty,” said Spriggs.
“Once it goes beyond a certain point, it will be like the Occidental next door. They’ll tear it down because you can’t use it economically and the taxes are too high to keep it up.”
Spriggs, who abandoned a short-lived retirement in October to again manage his business, began the serious renovation last winter by replacing rotting blocks beneath the hotel with new pressure-treated wood.
That work is partially finished and evident by the lean in the middle of the busy lounge, where the blocking has solidified the sagging floor.
A steep, but solid, set of stairs behind the lounge leads down to an airy, dry and remarkably warm crawlspace under the floor.
That’s where Spriggs, who no longer smokes and rarely drinks, now spends much of his time — in the fresh air.
This is also where he explained the hotel’s intricate underbelly, and how he has worked diligently, year after year, to square it all up.
It has not been an easy job considering the Westminster is a mish-mash of several buildings strung together between 1903 and 1938.
A rear addition went on at some point but Spriggs has no idea when that was.
He only discovered it when he tore out a wall five years ago to shrink the lobby and enlarge the lounge for more seating.
“That wall back there might have been the back wall,” he said, jamming a thumb westward. “On the inside wall, you take it out and there is a bloody window there, which used to look out, but doesn’t anymore.”
A scan around the Westminster’s crawlspace is a glance back at its colourful history.
Some blocking is cracked and rotting and some is new, holding up what appears to be a solid floor.
The plumbing is a combination of century-old, rusty, iron pipes connected to new plastic tubing that runs into blackness beyond the reaches of Spriggs’ flashlight.
A $10,000 government historic grant will be used to bolster the peripheral walls in stages, he said.
This is much-needed because the drain pipes are now leaning the wrong way because of a shifting foundation, causing inevitable back-ups in the system.
“Plumbing needs to flow,” Spriggs said.
With his flashlight pointed at the dark, 40-by-20-metre space, he explained the major work ahead — digging trenches on both sides of the walls to allow space for hydraulic jacks, and then reinforcing the walls so the floor is level throughout the building.
This is done, one wall at a time, over time, so customers can continue to rent rooms, buy drinks and dance to live music at odd angles.
Spriggs has owned the old hotel since he purchased it with two partners in 1991 from Fabien Salois, who owned it, and the Occidental, for 39 years.
The Westminster first purchased by the Salois family in 1929.
Spriggs said the hotel’s idiosyncrasies are constant, which makes managing it a constant adventure.
“I don’t think there is any end to it. When we did the tavern renovations, we found a calendar from 1906 still hanging inside the walls with two layers of wallpaper underneath it, which is interesting.
“By 1906, they’d already wallpapered again.”
The tavern was registered in 1903 as a boarding house under Mrs. A. Klein. In 1905, it was sold to J.W. Graham and first registered as “The Westminster Hotel.”
The lounge was added in 1938 and later, the now-abandoned garage and restaurant.
Spriggs has no realistic plans to resurrect the hotel’s eatery, though he is considering maintaining the room’s four walls and removing the roof so he can have a private patio.
“The floor is rotten,” he said. “It’s hard to justify. Who would really want to sit out there? It’s a really short season.”
How the hotel continues to stand, much less operate, is a Yukon mystery.
The lounge ceiling, which supports the second floor, sags badly over the band.
An endless number of wires run around the hotel.
Extension cords heat electric heaters in the aging guest rooms.
But Spriggs has an answer, and seemingly a knowledge, of everything in his hotel.
The electrical system is in good shape, he said.
“When we had a fire, or was it a fire? Anyway we had to pull the meter then. To get that back, we had to have a full checking over and they improved it.
“About $5,000 later, I got my meter back.”
The building, plumbing and wiring codes the hotel must meet to remain open are based on the building’s age, he explained.
“Once you open, improvements to the code are not inflicted on those people who have been passed the year before.
“Otherwise, everybody would have to get new systems (across) the whole country, which wouldn’t be possible,” he said.
“We’re up to the code, which was applicable when the installation was made.”
Still, Spriggs is quick to point out the financial wisdom of replacing his diesel boiler with a 1930s-style steam system because of ever-increasing fuel costs.
“I’ll look at a hot-water-pump system,” he said. “They are looking very cheap when looking at the fuel bill. You don’t have to save much to pay them off.”
The hotel’s antiquity works for and against the business, explained Spriggs.
It lures thousands of customers per year into its dark, smoky interior, but it also deters others for the same reason.
“There are many days that I wish it were new, but it’s good for the customers. It was always my favourite bar in Canada.
“It’s a good thing that there are a lot of people that would like to see it keep going and I would like to make some money out of it, which has proven to be not unreasonable.”
As he renovates, he will be careful not to destroy the hotel’s historic charm — and profitable beer sales, Spriggs said.
He only has to look at the Klondike Inn for a lesson in what can happen to renovators; that hotel’s former owner made a critical mistake by renovating in the 1980s.
“It had a nice bar. There used to be tables you could carve your name into. It was the place to go — packed for five years, there were full houses and three bouncers.
“He was struggling to keep up. Then he renovated with new furniture and everyone took one look and went to the Capitol.”