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In Dawson, I saw wonderful things

When I visited the old courthouse in Dawson City this past weekend, where I had an office for 18 years as curator for Parks Canada, it was like seeing the place for the first time, and yes, I saw wonderful things.

“As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold ­— everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment — an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by - I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”- Howard Carter, looking into the tomb of Tutankhamen for the first time

When I visited the old courthouse in Dawson City this past weekend, where I had an office for 18 years as curator for Parks Canada, it was like seeing the place for the first time, and yes, I saw wonderful things.

The courthouse was designed by T.W. Fuller, a government architect, in 1901, while he was in Dawson City constructing six government buildings just after the gold rush. The other buildings remain scattered around town — the old territorial administration building, post office, telegraph office and Commissioner’s residence all still stand. The public school was destroyed by fire in 1957.

The old courthouse building, which is located on Front Street beside the RCMP detachment, is not what I remember during my tenure there: the walls of my office, and several other rooms, were painted a pale institutional green over cheap fibreboard finishes. Only the staircase retained the grandeur of its earlier times.

Now, the later wall coverings have been removed to expose the underlying fir planking stained in a dark, rich finish. Bruised and battered as they are, they still reveal the elegance that the old building once displayed. To get an idea of what it looked like, peer into the lobby of the old administration building, which now houses the museum. The finishes of this restored building will give you an impression of what the interior of the old courthouse must have been like.

Tom Buzzell of Parks Canada is the project manager for the building, which is being restored over the next three years to once again serve as the headquarters for the Parks Canada staff in Dawson. As we entered the building, we discussed the functions the various rooms served when I worked here.

Just inside the back entrance on the right was where the stores operation was located. Straight ahead was the superintendent’s office. To the right down the central hall was the general works office, while to the left, beyond the grand central staircase, were the administration and personnel offices.

A plan of the original configuration of the building was pinned to one of the walls; we stopped to discuss the changes from then to the period when I worked here. I reminisced to the acting superintendent, Sean Nardela, who was entering the building for the first time. I am not sure if much of what I said made sense to him as I referred to people and events from my past.

But the greatest surprise of all was yet awaiting us as Buzzell ushered us to the second floor. At the top of the staircase, we turned right to what, in my memory, was a hallway with various rooms along either side. These rooms, and the walls that divided them, have been stripped away to reveal the original function of this area: courtroom.

Gone were the regulation-height drop ceilings; instead, a vaulted ceiling arched four meters high over the entire south wing of the building. The courtroom now revealed is large enough to house dances or other social functions. I gazed in wonder at the openness of the space, the colours now revealed and the intricate woodwork now exposed.

After this, everything else in the building seemed rather ordinary by comparison. When examining the remnants of the north courtroom, I was shown details that had not survived in the more spectacular south wing. Markings on the wall and ceiling hinted at the contour of the crown molding that ran around the top of the wall where it intersected with the slope of the vaulted ceiling.

The courthouse built by Fuller was designed to replace the original two-storey log courthouse that stood nearby. Its imposing neo-classical design was one of dignity and elegance that signaled the permanence of the community, and the presence of British justice. Symmetrical in its original form, the second storey contained a courtroom on either side of the central staircase.

The building served as a courthouse for a mere nine years, after which the judicial function was moved to the administration building to save money. The Royal North West Mounted Police moved into the building in 1914 when one of the many fires that plagued Dawson destroyed police headquarters.

On Jan. 10, 1950, St. Mary’s hospital, located at the far north end of Front Street, was destroyed by fire, and the Sisters of St. Anne, who operated the hospital, arranged with the federal government to convert the vacant courthouse into a replacement for the charred ruins.

The Sisters never destroyed the original finishes; they simply covered them over, thus saving much of the original fabric. The installation of a dumbwaiter in the original north courtroom damaged the aesthetic as well as the structural integrity of the space. An extension, which included an operating theatre, was added to the north end of the building, ruining the elegant symmetry of the original building.

I have talked to many people who remembered spending time in this building when it was a hospital; several told me that they were born in this building.

The building continued to serve as the hospital until it was replaced by the nursing station that was recently demolished. Shortly after that, the courthouse was occupied by Parks Canada for more than 20 years, until it was rented out to the Yukon government from 1995 to 2005.

The building underwent asbestos abatement over three winters, followed in 2015 by the installation of a new foundation. The past two winters have been spent stripping the interior back to its original appearance and configuration, revealing the marvelous details now visible. By the end of March, 2020, the Parks staff from various other buildings will be consolidated within this single structure.

And Fuller, the architect who engineered this magnificent building? He eventually became the Chief Dominion Architect for Canada from 1927 to 1936.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.