The house that gold built

We may think of the classic Yukon building as the tiny cabin made of log, overlooking a small lake in a hidden corner of the territory.

We may think of the classic Yukon building as the tiny cabin made of log, overlooking a small lake in a hidden corner of the territory. But the gold rush spawned a burst of construction that included some very elegant turn of the century buildings.

The most elaborate home of that era, and still, perhaps of today, is the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson City.

The building has a colourful past.

It originally served the same function as the White House in Washington, DC — that of housing the top honcho in the territorial government — and that person was, at the time, the commissioner.

It was built on a base of gold, which was the spark that ignited the overnight colonization of the Yukon that resulted from the Klondike stampede. At one time, and again today, it is painted a muted shade of gold.

And its most famous occupants were the Blacks, George and Martha to be exact, who became a political powerhouse in Yukon politics in the first half of the 20th century.

Once the Klondike was proven to be a substantial find, and not a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon, the federal government realized that it would have to invest in permanent infrastructure.

It sent a government architect by the name of Thomas Fuller to construct the government buildings, which included a post office, an administration building, a courthouse, school, telegraph office, and a residence for its most prominent civil servant.

The building, whose construction was completed in 1901, started its life as a box-shaped structure, placed in the middle of a mucky and unfinished lot on Front Street, in the government reserve, overlooking the mighty Yukon River.

It was transformed during the era of commissioner Congdon into a gingerbread wonder with elaborate verandahs and little cupolas on the front that cynical citizens called “ballot boxes” in because of the corrupt electoral practices of the Congdon regime.

The building was gutted by fire Christmas Eve 1905, and some years later, was renovated to the configuration that we see today. The four-year tenure of commissioner George Black, and his wife Martha was interrupted in 1916 by the First World War and the building stood unoccupied until 1950, when, after the hospital at the north end of town burned down, the Sisters of St. Ann convinced the federal government to let them use it to house indigent elderly men.

 Fifteen years later, the Sisters shut it down, and it came into the possession of Parks Canada after it was recognized as being of national significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

As part of Parks Canada’s contribution to the celebration of the gold rush centennial, a plan was conceived to restore the building to its historical appearance during the residency of George and Martha Black (1912-1914).

Despite the eclectic mix of government purchases that furnished the building during the post-fire era, George and Martha made their mark on the character of the building.

Martha made occasional purchases of furnishings, and around 1914, a new sun room mysteriously appeared at the rear of the second floor. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century, the interior was also personalized by Martha’s love of horticulture, and George’s skill as an amateur taxidermist.

Fortunately, when the plan to restore the building and refurnish the main floor was approved in 1988, there was good evidence in photographs and government files to enable an accurate restoration. About 70 per cent of the original furnishings had survived in a government warehouse in Whitehorse.

The project eventually called in to play the involvement of 200 craftsmen and technical specialists from all over the Parks Canada system. Restoration architects and engineers, curators, archeologists, craftspeople, planners and conservators all played a role.

Dawson craftsmen like Ben Johnson, Paul Blanchard and Brian Reeves reproduced some of the pieces of furniture that no longer survived.

Luigi Delgrande a skilled furniture specialist in the conservation workshop in Parks Canada’s Ottawa headquarters took on some of the upholstered furnishings from the fancy drawing room as his final major project before retiring.

Curators from all over the Parks Canada network tracked down the necessary furnishings and arranged for reproductions when originals were no longer available. This work took them far and wide: some of the carpets were reproduced in Thailand, the only place where the old fashioned looms survived, and copies of portraits of the king and queen were obtained from the royal collection in Great Britain.

Local citizens took particular interest, and pride in assisting the project.

Pieces of furniture that had ended up in private hands were generously returned.

In one case, a music cabinet was returned, minus its long delicate legs; furniture conservators in Winnipeg were able to make it as good as new.

Photographs and small samples of the original wallpapers, were used as examples to commission the fabrication of replicas that matched the originals.

The staff at historic Fort Steele in British Columbia silk screened one pattern for us when we couldn’t find a suitable selection on today’s market.

Among the numerous challenges were the many decisions that had to be made to retain the historic fabric and appearance. A sprinkler system to protect the building was designed that would minimize the visual impact. New electrical work had to be installed so it would not damage the original fabric. The original light fixtures were re-wired to meet modern safety standards, and missing fixtures were replicated in the United States.

The original parquet floor on the main level had been severely damaged in the flood of 1979. The construction crew devised ingenious ways to flatten and reinstall the thousands of warped oak tiles.

By opening day, the intricate patterns lay flat and shone with a brilliance that they hadn’t seen since they were originally installed 90 years before.

The maintenance crew fussed over the care of the historically accurate species of plants in the flower beds, many of which had been grown and planted by Grant Dowdell, a local horticulturist. As the grand opening approached, the staff took special care to protect the flowers in case there should be an early frost.

The efforts of the many hearts, hands and minds paid off. On August 16, 1996, the entire community and every visitor in town at the time showed up to witness prime minister Jean Chretien officially open the building to the public.

Every summer, Parks Canada provides guided tours of the interior of this grand building. When you next visit Dawson City, take in the tour. While doing so, remember not only that this is an historically accurate rendering of this magnificent building, but also that many people joined hands to make the project a success.

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