Story & Photo by Dan Davidson
The purchase of the Old CIBC Building on Front Street by the City of Dawson at the end of January was just the first step in the town’s plan to save the place from further decay and end years of complaints from both locals and visitors about the state of the building.
The price tag of $170,000 was a bit startling, but this resolution to a problem that has been festering on Front Street since 1989 when the bank moved out and sold it to a private landowner, is welcome here.
The next step is to declare it a Municipal Historic Site. One might expect this to be a forgone conclusion, since the building has been a National Historic Site (with a Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque to prove it) since 1988, but that fact didn’t stop the national bank from deserting the site it had occupied since the Gold Rush the very next year and moving to the Dawson Plaza, which was then owned by the company that bought the bank building.
The Bank of Commerce (before the merger with the Imperial Bank of Can. In 1961), arrived in Dawson at the behest of the Dominion Government (as it was often called then) to set up banking in 1898 and the present building came into being in 1901.
As the plaque mounted on the boulder says, “this Renaissance Revival building is one of Canada’s finest surviving structures clad in decorative pressed metal.” The metal is shaped and painted to look like the stone buildings that the style imitates.
There aren’t very many of these buildings left in Canada – and Dawson has two of them, the other one being the Masonic Lodge four blocks up Queen Street. It started out as a Carnegie Library.
Another reason people look at it can be found written on a second plaque near the boarded up front door.
“Robert Service was among the clerks who worked here, before his poetry earned him financial independence and the honorary title ‘Bard of the Yukon’.”
Less than a fortnight after the purchase the town made its first moves towards designating the building, having already consulted with a structural engineer to make sure the building was worth trying to save.
The private owner didn’t let it fall apart. It had sunk into the ground somewhat after the flood of 1979 and it now has a full basement foundation that it did not have when the bank owned it. But the paint has peeled, some of the tin has blown off (and apparently been salvaged) and all the windows were broken out and boarded up years ago.
The bylaw to formalize the designation process received first reading on February 12 and the public hearing took place on May 6.
Attendance at this meeting was not large, and there were no objections to the proposal. This was not at all unexpected after the outpouring of positive comments on social media immediately after the purchase. The discussion was polite and there were merely expressions of concern that whatever plans the town might have for renovations be thoroughly discussed with locals, particularly those with some expertise in restoring derelict buildings.
A restoration architect, John Key, has been contracted to prepare a plan for the next phase of the project, which will include cosmetic repairs to the exterior of the building and sealing up the various leaks in the structure.
There is still quite a bit of junk inside the building and city manager Jeff Renaud reported that the Dawson Firefighters Assoc. will be hosting a clean-up day there in the near future, in time to allow the building to be opened during Parks Canada’s planned Doors Open Dawson event which will take place during Gold Show Weekend.
Just what the future for the building might be is still an open question, but Renaud did say he has had some conversations with upper management of the CIBC, as well as many other suggestions.
The bylaw designating the building as a Municipal Historic Site will receive second and third reading at the council meeting on May 14.