Reinventing the Central Park Building
I sit in the office of the Bulkley Valley Museum on the main floor of the Central Park Building and gaze down Smithers’ Main Street. Alpine Al continuously blows his alpenhorn as Hudson Bay Mountain rises behind him to meet the clear sky. The exhibition space behind me has been dismantled in preparation for a storm of renovations and a brand new exhibit for the town’s upcoming centennial celebrations.
Constructed in 1925, the Central Park Building originally served as the town’s Provincial Building. In May of that year the Interior News announced: “Hanson & Shockley, Prince Rupert, were the successful contractors in tendering on the construction of new government buildings in Smithers.” The total contract price for the completion of the building was recorded as $28,244, which highlights the extent to which costs of construction has inflated over the past 88 years.
After addressing problems with the foundation, and figuring out a way to supply the building with water and heat, the new occupants moved in. The ground floor housed the Government Agent’s office, as well as jails for both men and women. I wander through the museum and art gallery that presently occupy the main floor and wonder exactly where these jails were and who occupied them. Did the museum’s artifact storage rooms once serve as the temporary home of incarcerated citizens? The old walk-in vault in the art gallery, which now houses the museum archives, must have once held decades upon decades of birth and death certificates, mining claims, farm holdings, and all manner of paperwork that records the business of human life.
The second floor accommodated the Court Room, as well as offices for the mining engineer and agricultural and forestry advisors. The first court session was held on January 29, 1926. In the present-day incarnation of the building, the large room on the second floor serves as a dance and performance studio. I peek into the empty, open space and imagine a trial underway. After walking past doors labelled Creative Roots Performing Arts, Genealogical Society, and Bulkley Valley Spinners and Weavers, I move toward the rear of the building and climb the stairway to the third floor.
In the 1920s the third floor was designated as the living quarters of the police chief. I stroll down the hallway and take in the multi-coloured doors that open onto rooms used by many local musicians and instructors. Flowing cursive announces one red door as The Salon. I wonder if the old Chief was a musician himself, or if he preferred to keep his home quiet after a long day of doling out law and order.
During the early ‘70s, the fate of the Central Park Building hung in the balance. New government offices were built in Alfred Park at the other end of Main Street, and the old Court House (as it was known) was donated to the Town of Smithers. There was much debate over whether to keep or destroy the building. In the meantime, it temporarily operated as a community cultural activity centre. In 1978, the Central Park Building Society, a registered non-profit, was given the authority to operate and renovate the building.
In January 1981 the Central Park Building was declared a Heritage Site—the first of its kind in Smithers—and its survival was assured. Smithers resident Rosa Havard once said: “The old building stands there—a tribute to the constancy and continuity of time, a strong link in the chain of our inheritance.” This sentiment encapsulates why the building caught my eye and captured my imagination when I first moved to Smithers in the summer of 2012.
I look around at the incomplete museum renovations and consider the history I have entered into through my new post. After years of handing out justice, jailing wayward citizens, and keeping the town’s official records, the Central Park Building escaped near destruction and succeeded in reinventing itself. According to Linda Stringfellow, “the Central Park Building is the heartbeat of the arts community.”
Renovations will come and go, but the heart beats on.