Historical Overview: MacBride Museum Expansion, Whitehorse, Yukon

ARCHITECT Kobayashi + Zedda Architects

Until recently, the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse was made up of a patchwork of rustic old buildings. Its first home in 1951 was the former telegraph office, built in 1900. In 1967, it expanded into another log building, and added a third building a few years later. An administrative office went up in 2007. The rest of the property—which, in all, occupies five city lots of prime waterfront real estate downtown—contained an outdoor display area, train shed and courtyard.

But despite its large footprint, the museum had under 800 square metres of public exhibit space—not nearly enough for its 40,000-item collection and archives on Yukon First Nations, mammals and birds, and the Klondike Gold Rush.

Then, in 2016, the museum received $6 million in federal and territorial funding for a new 1,500-square-metre addition. Architects Kobayashi + Zedda were commissioned for the project, and proposed a design that boldly cantilevers over the 119-year old telegraph office.

An addition cantilevers over the museum’s turn-of-the-century telegraph office, shielding it from weather. Photo by Andrew Latreille

When they released their conceptual renderings, some people called their scheme “ugly” and an “eyesore” on social media. Others said it was too modern or didn’t suit the look of the waterfront. And, not everyone was happy with the price tag (which later increased to about $8 million).

Patricia Cunning, executive director of the MacBride Museum, says much of the early criticism about the design faded once people understood the purpose of the mostly windowless design—to protect artifacts from sunlight—and after the exterior work was completed. “Tons of people talk to me about how beautiful it is,” she says.

Jack Kobayashi of Kobayashi + Zedda says the design reflects Whitehorse’s modern history of mining and industry, in the same way the museum’s collection does. The museum’s façade combines a variety of materials, juxtaposing rust-speckled and shiny corrugated tin siding, cement board that imitates the look of wood while being non-combustible, and copper-painted aluminium panels. On the underside of the cantilever, hexagonal zinc tiles form a pattern reminiscent of wood shingles. The bric-a-brac composition pays homage to the industriousness of Whitehorse’s early founders: prospectors, miners and businesspeople drawn north by the Klondike Gold Rush, who built with scrap materials salvaged from industrial sites.

MacBride Museum expansion by Kobayashi and Zedda Architects. Photo by Andrew Latreille

“The bulk of the museum is metal, because that’s a Yukon vernacular material that goes all the way back to the Gold Rush,” Kobayashi says. “People used whatever they had available to them to clad their houses and put on their roofs.”

Although pathways and green spaces line the Whitehorse waterfront today, it was a different story in 1899, when the townsite was established. Across from where the museum now stands were shipbuilding docks, warehouses and the train station.

The circa-1900 telegraph office resides in its original location and is one of the oldest remaining buildings on the waterfront. Preserving it was a priority. Kobayashi + Zedda originally planned to enclose the structure inside the new building, but later decided it would be better showcased outside. The new three-storey building flanks the north and west sides of the telegraph office, and a cantilevered projection protects the heritage structure from the weather, while allowing for new gallery space in the two floors above.

The underside of the addition is clad with zinc tiles that nod to the tin roofs of local buildings, and form a pattern reminiscent of wood shingles. Photo by Andrew Latreille

The age of the museum buildings and the site’s layout—with structures on every corner of the large lot—created a challenge for the architects. They were tasked with upgrading existing infrastructure, designing a new building and seamlessly connecting everything together.

These connections start underground, where the basements of two previously separate buildings were joined, creating a new storage space. At ground level, a large and airy lobby—dubbed Aurora Hall—relocates the museum’s formerly elevated main entrance to street level, improving curb appeal and easing access. Large windows on two sides allow people on the sidewalk to see through the lobby and into the courtyard, where the museum hosts popular live music and storytelling events.

Aurora Hall connects to the 1967 log building, which Kobayshi + Zedda reinforced and opened up to create a “longhouse feel” for the First Nations Gallery. That exhibit now has room to display more than 350 artifacts, compared to the 40 previously on display.

Within the addition, a new lobby connects to an existing building and opens onto a courtyard used for outdoor performances. Photo by Andrew Latreille

The two new floors above Aurora Hall are treated as a black box, with environmental controls to protect artifacts. Patios on either side of the upper floors provide some relief to the exterior, while showing off a 360-degree view of Whitehorse’s cityscape.

Executive director Patricia Cunning says all the museum’s spaces were designed to be multifunctional. While the work-in-progress top floor will display exhibits about Yukon innovators and icons—politicians, pilots and mountaineers, to name a few—it can double as a venue for cocktail parties and wedding receptions. The second-floor gallery showcases local artists and a rotating selection from the museum’s collection of 1,500 historic photos. Other additions to the museum include a map and reading room, and a “Discovery Zone” where visitors will be able to don a Yukon-made parka and enter a minus-30-degree-Celsius walk-in freezer to experience what a Yukon winter could feel like (notwithstanding the effects of global warming, which is taking place in the North at twice the global rate).

While the freezer will likely be a popular attraction during the summer months, it’s during winter, when darkness prevails, that the exterior of the museum really shines. Outdoor lights—built into the zinc-tiled ceiling of the cantilever—highlight the telegraph office, while dainty lights on the façade trace the Cassiopeia and Big Dipper constellations.

The telegraph office is spotlighted at night, while pinprick lights embedded in the museum’s façade are configured in the same pattern as the Cassiopeia and Big Dipper constellations. Photo by Andrew Latreille

Although the museum advertises year-round hours, it’s unclear if it will be open during regular hours this coming winter. That’s due to an ongoing property tax dispute with the City of Whitehorse. Rick Nielsen, chair of the non-profit museum’s board of directors, told the CBC in April that the museum may have to reduce operations if the city does not forgive $154,000 in owed back taxes.

Despite that unsettling prospect, the museum appears to be more popular than ever. Cunning says visits were up 30 percent in 2018, and another 16 percent as of July of this year. She attributes that to the renovations. “It’s 100 percent because of the building,” she says, adding that one man calls every week to ask when the rest of the exhibits will open (September, she says). “People are keen to see it.”

Karen McColl is a Whitehorse-based writer.

CLIENT MacBride Museum; Patricia Cunning (Director) | ARCHITECT TEAM Jack Kobayashi, Lauren Holmes, David Tolkamp, Vance Fok, Philippe Gregoire, Andrew Malloy | STRUCTURAL Ennova Structural Engineers | MECHANICAL Northern Climate Engineering | ELECTRICAL Dorward Engineering Services | CIVIL NA Jacobsen | LIGHTING Margot Richards | ENERGY Reload Consulting | ACOUSTIC RWDI | CODE Jensen Hughes | HARDWARE Banks Consulting | CONTRACTOR Ketza Construction | AREA 1,477 m2 | BUDGET $8.5 M | COMPLETION March 2018

Energy Use

ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED) 103 kWh/m2/year | BENCHMARK (Non-medical institutional/commercial buildings in Canada after 2010, Statistics Canada) 305 kWh/m2/year