Historic treasures: to save, or not to save

One of my colleagues rushed into my office with a radio the other morning. There was something she wanted me to listen too.

One of my colleagues rushed into my office with a radio the other morning. There was something she wanted me to listen too.

CBC personality Shelagh Rogers was revisiting an article she had broadcast earlier in the week.

The article was about efforts to save the King Edward Hotel, more popularly known as the “King Eddy,” in Calgary.

She was reading over the air some of the reactions she had received from listeners.

The responses ranged from praise to criticism for the effort to save the building, which, over the last two decades, had become one of Canada’s pre-eminent blues-bars.

The negative response from one correspondent troubled me.

Basically, he said, they should tear the building down.

“It is time to move on,” he had written — or words to that effect.

Though it’s probably apparent to anyone who has ever read this column, I’ll lay my cards on the table anyway.

I think the Yukon has a marvelous history.

It stretches back for 10,000 years and more.

It is varied, and it all contributes to who we are. The built heritage is a significant part of that history.

We should not let it hold us back from moving in to the future, but neither should it be seen as an obstacle, something to be demolished in order to progress.

History should rather be seen as a series of important wayside stops on the road to the future, places where we can rest and refresh ourselves and enrich our spirit. Destruction of the past, I think, threatens to create a shallow spirit.

“The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory,” said Czech author Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

“Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then you have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.”

Erasure of memory has been attempted many times in the past.

In 146 B.C., the Romans converted Carthage to rubble; the Germans burned down synagogues during Kristallnacht in 1938. The Chinese are attempting to make Tibet Chinese.

In Romania, Ceausescu destroyed historic structures and religious architecture, replacing them with block after block of repetitious rectangular boxes in order to create a “utopia on the ruins of the past.”

Dictators have, for hundreds of years, tried to create a new glory shaped in their own image by depriving the people of any alternative view.

In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

The Buddhas were a pair of monumental 6th century A.D. stone statues carved into a stone face in the Valley of Bamiyan.

They stand 55 and 37 metres high and are part of the cultural landscape and archeological remains in the Bamiyan Valley which have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The Taliban bombarded the figures with artillery fire and set off explosive devices in the stone work for a month, in the hope of eradicating this remarkable piece of history.

Radical Afghan clerics had decided that un-Islamic forms of imagery, music and sports, including television, should be eradicated in strict conformity with narrow interpretations of Islamic law.

From that perspective, these marvelous creations had to go.

In some parts of the world, people seem compelled to destroy their built heritage.

In other places, historic structures and monumental creations are protected and celebrated.

Imagine leveling Stonehenge, or demolishing Venice because it is more cost-efficient than taking measures to protect it from the threat of a global-warming induced rise in sea level.

In Europe, Asia or other parts of the world, it is easy to understand why, with pride, nations restore ancient ruins that are hundreds or even thousands of years old.

Think of the pyramids of Egypt, or the monumental works of Teotihuacán in Mexico.

But in Canada, we tend to have things that are less monumental, and certainly are younger.

We Canadians have an inferiority complex about our built heritage.

We cower at comparisons of our historic buildings with those of Europe. Rather than preserve our legacy, we seem to prefer instead to want to “build for the future.”

This may explain why there is little that survives in Whitehorse to represent the built heritage associated with the Alaska Highway construction era.

In Whitehorse, suggestions to save derelict heritage buildings have received hoots of derision from many quarters of the community.

Despite that resistance, a number of heritage buildings have been successfully preserved and put to good use, such as the Taylor House on Main Street, the Donnenworth, Smith and Captain Martin Houses in Lepage Park, and the T.C. Richards Building on Steele Street.

Dawson City is a unique example. Because of its formation and subsequent history, it has perhaps the highest ratio of heritage buildings of any community in Canada.

While Calgary for example, a city with a population of 1 million, has five buildings recognized as nationally significant, Dawson City, with a population of 2,000, has 18!

While many of the heritage buildings in Dawson City have been demolished since I first moved there in 1978, many have survived and numerous structures among them have been stabilized or restored.

I was once asked to speak at a tourism conference.

There I made a pitch to save the Old Territorial Administration Building, now the home of the Dawson Museum, and the largest heritage building in the territory.

Imagine, I said, what kind of a tourist attraction Dawson City would be without its historic buildings.

Would a gas station, a few stores and a couple of hotels be enough to attract tens of thousands of people to visit the community every summer?

Somebody listened, and within a few months, money was allocated to start the restoration process.

Every Yukoner can take pride in the result from that effort.

Dawson’s unpaved streets and the wooden sidewalks all contribute to a distinctive and unique presence.

Unlike Skagway, where many of the historic buildings have been moved onto a strip along their main street, Dawson is the real thing. It’s hard to place a price tag on it.

Instead, I would argue that it is priceless.

While it isn’t as old or as monumental as you would find in Europe, this historic town is a rare treasure whose character should be preserved without the disturbing intrusion of vinyl and aluminum and neon.

So what is it going to be? Are we going to dismiss these old buildings as derelicts past their prime and get rid of them so that we can move on in the name of progress, or should we preserve them to remember where we have come from, as part of celebrating the diversity of our past?

I know how I would answer that question, but do you?

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse

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