When pondering Yukon’s historic buildings, it’s understandable that many first think of Dawson City. The Klondike Gold Rush was a romantic, heady and heart-breaking time and the buildings that still stand from that time are testament to that legacy.
Whitehorse, on the other hand, rarely snags a second thought.
But an often overlooked era in the territory’s history had a huge influence on the built landscape in the capital city. The post-war years transformed Yukon, bringing a building boom and lending a distinctive look to many of
Whitehorse’s neighbourhoods and commercial areas.
“After World War II, Whitehorse really started to grow and it changed from a northern hamlet into a service centre,” says architect and heritage researcher Carole Bookless. “There was so much change and lots of new technology that could be used in construction, like high-strength plywood that was developed for making airplanes.”
Wartime brought the military and a wave of construction to Yukon, starting with the Alaska Highway, air bases along the Northwest Staging Route and the Canol Pipeline. The armed forces tended to keep to themselves and their impact on established Yukon life at the time was subtle; however, the military’s legacy profoundly influenced the territory’s future. By 1953, when the territorial capital moved from Dawson City to Whitehorse, instant
communities had sprung up in several new neighbourhoods created to house civil servants, veterans and their families.
“The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation was an important factor at this time,” adds Bookless, citing the Canadian government’s efforts to issue loans and provide affordable housing in the wake of the war.
“When I was researching this period, everyone was saying ‘we’re not just about the gold rush!’ — there was so much going on at the time,” says Bookless. “All the squatters were being kicked out, and the White Pass was
holding up a lot of land.”
In her research report, The Whitehorse Style – Part II, a study of the architecture of Whitehorse, Bookless points out that some people may object to the “Goldrushification” of Main Street and other downtown facades because
it is an inaccurate portrayal of Whitehorse heritage. Meanwhile, some of the city’s signature buildings have maintained and celebrated their postwar character, such as Murdoch’s Gem Shop with its distinctive neon sign and
the Horwoods building at the foot of Main Street.
In the 1950s, concrete and stucco gained popularity as construction materials, and this trend is evident in many large, square buildings around Whitehorse including Whitehorse Elementary, the Lynn Building and the industrial
buildings along Range Road around the Barracks.
In a review of federal government post-war housing completed by the City of Whitehorse, researcher Rob Ingram documented at least 18 different Department of Public Works (DPW) standard house plans used in four
Whitehorse neighbourhoods: Riverdale, Takhini, Valleyview and Hillcrest.
Though many were single family units, duplexes were common. According to the report, the Steelox brand of duplexes in Hillcrest was a relatively new trend in affordable, prefabricated housing. The idea that entire communities were comprised of just a few house designs was a “harbinger of the modern subdivision.”
For a town that numbered fewer than 500 year-round residents before the Second World War, the pace of development in the decade following the war meant significant changes in the culture of the community. Ingram’s study
identifies some of these shifts: the new neighbourhoods were instant, uniform communities with all the modern services that surely would develop differently than unplanned neighbourhoods, and the influx of government and
military personnel altered the town’s social structure. This reflected the suburban planning across Canada during the period.
Today, post-war housing continues to dominate many Whitehorse neighbourhoods, and many public and commercial buildings constructed in the 1950s remain a vital and valued part of the community. From colourful accents painted on Whitehorse Elementary to triple-pane windows and a rainbow of exterior cladding on DPW duplexes in Valleyview and Takhini, many of these half century-old structures are seeing significant alterations. Though the
postwar style is often evident, most have been renovated in some way.
Determining and preserving heritage values for architecture from this era is challenging. As Ingram points out, in many cases it is the communities rather than individual buildings that make it distinctive, and the dynamic nature of these communities is also significant. It’s a reminder that heritage is as much — or more — about who lives in and uses buildings as it is about preserving fifty-year-old designs. Thankfully these design elements have been incorporated into Whitehorse’s heritage landscape and not into its landfill.
For more information on Yukon’s historic places, please go to www.yukonhistoricplaces.ca.
This article is part of a series produced by the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture with the support of the government of Canada, Historic Places Initiative.