Central Park Building:

🕔Sep 22, 2008

Close your eyes in this sunlit room and you can almost feel the courtroom tension, hear the judge’s gavel as it closes another case. You can imagine the grunts echoing in the stairwell as the local police officer heaved and hauled the evening’s inebriate from the streets of Smithers, up three flights of stairs to the jail cells. You can picture shirt-collared government workers with the departments of Lands and Labour huddled together in cramped office spaces upstairs.
Smithers’ Central Park Building has seen many incarnations, today acting as the community’s hub for arts and culture. In its halls, excited children rush to pick up performance costumes, artists ply their crafts and community members meet to learn, create and socialize. Narrowly avoiding the wrecking ball on at least one occasion, the building faces the ongoing challenges of any aging structure, but continues to be the town’s social centre.
“This room alone is a beehive,” says Janet Harris, who teaches dance classes in what once was a courtroom, now a sunny dance studio, surrounded by windows encased in heavy wooden moldings typical of their era. “I don’t think it’s quiet here for more than a couple hours at a time.”
Built in 1925 as the Provincial Building, the Central Park Building’s name pays tribute to the green space that once occupied the lot at Smithers’ main intersection at Main Street and Highway 16. For 50 years the 7,700-square-foot, three-storey building intermittently housed the police detachment, jail cells, the forest service, the courthouse, numerous government offices, and even the local RCMP sergeant’s family.
In the early 1970s, the provincial government pulled out of the aging building and donated it to the Town of Smithers. For the next six years, the town rented space to local not-for-profit organizations at $3.20 per square foot, but increasing maintenance costs were putting the building’s future in jeopardy.
In August, 1978 it was announced that the furnace was no longer safe and would not be replaced. Many believed that a winter without heat would spell the end of the aging building, not to mention the end of an era. Despite recommendations from two town councillors that the building be torn down, Mayor Gordon Williams vetoed the building’s destruction vote and that fall the Central Park Building Society was formed.
The society took over management of the building in 1979. That year, massive fundraising efforts resulted in a new roof and installation of the building’s current furnace. Despite these efforts, just three years later the building was closed on recommendation of the fire commissioner for not being up to code. That summer, engineers reported that the building had endured well and its preservation as a historical and community landmark would benefit the community. Estimated costs for required renovations came in at $370,000.
Again, volunteer efforts flew into full swing, and by the following year the building boasted upgraded electrical, roofing and structural support systems, as well as a 440-square-foot addition to incorporate two stairwells in back as fire exits. In the end, the heritage restoration project cost the society $111,153, which it largely paid for with funding from BC’s Heritage Fund, the Town of Smithers, and more fundraising. An additional $66,000 in labour and materials was donated by the community.
The renos resulted in its status as being “heritage on three sides,” with the north, south and west walls qualifying, but the revamped backside excluded. With similar architecture, the Central Park Building bookends the old CN Railway station, another of the town’s heritage buildings, at opposite ends of Main Street.
Today, the Central Park Building Society might feel a sense of déjà vu as the building’s 30-year-old furnace nears the end of its life. According to a 2007 assessment, the heating system operates at 60 to 65 percent efficiency. Add to that pipes as old as the building itself, next-to-no insulation in the roof, single-paned windows and skyrocketing heating costs, and it’s easy to understand why a move is underway to raise the funds required to once again upgrade the facility.
Now home to the Bulkley Valley Museum and the Smithers Art Gallery, the Central Park Building plays a pivotal role in the community’s arts and culture scene, as well as providing a much-needed meeting place for groups like the Genealogical Society, Spinners and Weavers, Tai Chi, yoga and Irish step-dancing. On the third floor, an otherwise claustrophobic hallway with peeling paint and cracked linoleum hosts an array of colourfully painted doorways, each leading into studios where local artists and musicians come to find inspiration.
The dancers, artists, musicians and community members that gather here do so in a building where the sounds of history still ring loudly. But far from hosting ghosts from the past, the Central Park Building continues to create new memories and play an important role in the area’s culture and society.
“A lot of people don’t realize this building is more than just the art gallery and the museum,” Harris says. “I would hazard to say there’s well over 100 people that come in and out of the building on a daily basis.”