In 1979 or 1980, we stood in the dusty chamber in the half-light pouring in from the large bank of windows at the back of the building. It was the old mining recorder’s office in the derelict structure we had come to know as the OTAB in Dawson City.
OTAB stood for “Old Territorial Administrations Building,” and it had certainly seen better times. The guide for our small group that day was renowned writer and native son Pierre Berton, and he was reminiscing about his childhood. His father was once the mining recorder, and had worked in this office when Berton was young.
Berton recalled coming down to visit his father after he was finished school for the day. He pointed to a tarnished old metal cart with four wobbly wheels. That, he stated was the trolley upon which all of the old mining recorder’s ledgers were placed at the end of the day when they were wheeled into the big concrete vault that was attached to the rear of the building.
When Pierre was small, he would hang on to the handle and place his feet on the bottom shelf of the cart while his father Frank Berton rolled it from the main office into the concrete enclosure for safekeeping each afternoon.
The OTAB had seen better days. Once the grandest building in the territory, by 1980 it was a shell of its former elegance. It hadn’t received adequate maintenance in decades. The basement was filled with rot and the supports were collapsing.
The entire building was cold and damp. The washrooms were in another cement chamber just to the rear of the main staircase and were so dank that huge white masses of fungus were sprouting from the woodwork.
The pleasant senior volunteers who greeted visitors at the front admission counter wore two or three sweaters to fight off the pervasive chill.
But it wasn’t always that way. It was once the most prominent of a half dozen public buildings constructed following the gold rush to demonstrate the federal government’s commitment to the promising future of the Klondike, and to establish and maintain sovereignty over its northern territory.
The man who designed and oversaw the construction of this building was Thomas W. Fuller, who was just starting his career as an architect for the Department of Pubic Works. Fuller was part of a tradition in building work that continues today. His father, Thomas Fuller, senior, was a partner in the architectural firm of Fuller and Jones, who were chosen in 1859 to design the Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
When the original building burned down February 4, 1916, it was son Thomas W. who designed the replacement. Thomas W. eventually rose to the position of Dominion Architect.
In the 1990s, when major renovations were undertaken on the Centre Block, it was another Fuller, T.W.‘s grandson, who undertook the work.
Five other Dawson buildings were designed by Fuller including: the Post Office, Courthouse, Public School, Commissioner’s Residence, and Telegraph Office.
A site was considered on Front Street where the Commissioner’s Residence now stands, but the location was deemed too crowded, so Commissioner Ross approved the site on Fifth Avenue, farther back from the river. Construction started on July 4, 1901, with Fuller acting as foreman.
Day labour was employed to do the work, and as much as possible, the material came from local suppliers. One of the mills that produced lumber for the construction of the OTAB was the Yukon Sawmill Co., which has been restored in recent years, and still stands on its original site on Front Street, close to the ferry landing.
By the end of July, the frame was complete to the rafters, and despite various delays, the outside of the structure was finished by the middle of September. It was ready for occupancy by the first of December.
The building was quite imposing from the outside, especially once the surrounding grounds were landscaped, and trees and fences installed. The later addition of the Victory Garden in the space to the north of the building further enhanced its attractive appearance.
The interior of this massive edifice added to the elegance. Upon entering the building, visitors were confronted by an impressive central staircase that ascended to the second floor, and the walls and paneled ceilings were made from oiled and varnished BC fir.
The building was illuminated with “hundreds of electrical fixtures,” enhanced by natural light flooding in through the numerous large windows. Three areas were singled out for their overall impact to the viewer: The mining recording office, which occupied a major portion of the north half of the main floor of the building; the council chambers on the south half of the second floor, and the Commissioner’s office.
The Commissioner’s office was a sunny one, with lighting augmented by three-lamp electroliers suspended from the ceiling that added illumination in the dark winter months. The floor was carpeted and the finely finished walls were covered with the portraits of statesmen. The room was dominated by a massive oak desk that was topped with bird’s-eye maple, and surrounded by several easy chairs.
As the population of the territory dwindled, the 60 civil servants employed in this building declined in number as well. To reduce costs, the government transferred the functions from other buildings into the OTAB, most notably the law court in 1910, and the postal service, which was moved in temporarily for the winter of 1922, and permanently by 1925.
The building was abandoned in 1953 when the government was moved to the new capital in Whitehorse. After that, it was used for the local radio station, as well as classrooms, when the original Fuller-built school burned down in 1957.
When a similar fate fell upon the Dawson City Museum, the museum society moved into the OTAB in 1962 and became the permanent and main tenant.
By the 1980s the building had not received any major maintenance in several decades and was in poor condition. The community, spearheaded by the Dawson City Museum Society, campaigned for major investment and renewal. The society gained the ear of Bea Firth, the newly appointed minister responsible for the new Yukon heritage department.
The first major intervention was the stabilization of the foundation of the building, and then over a period of several years, the Society worked with the territorial government, which owns the building, and The Iredale Partnership, a Vancouver architectural firm, to restore the building.
November 8th, 1986, the newly restored building was officially re-opened with the unveiling of a plaque by then government leader Tony Penikett, minister of Tourism Dave Porter, and Dawson Museum Building Committee chairman Robbie Van Rumpt.
Finally, in June 2001, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the building as a national treasure, declaring it a national historic site because of its outstanding architectural qualities and its symbolic link between the territory and southern Canadian society.
Thanks to the efforts of many individuals, it has become an architectural jewel in the crown of historical buildings in the Yukon
Michael Gates is a local historian
and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.