For many years it was known as the Old Map Building, but everything around it was just as old.
There was the Old Harbourmaster’s House, the Old HQ, the Old Theatre, the Old Control Tower, the Old Chapel, four Old Hangars and a whole bunch of Old H-Block Barracks.
In fact, the whole rundown
Second World War-era neighbourhood on the north fringe of 5 Wing Goose Bay was and still often is called the Old Canadian Side.
When the United States became the prime user of the base, all
the original RCAF facilities were decommissioned and abandoned. Many of the buildings were never given new uses and they slowly rotted away, got vandalized, fell under the weight of snow or burned suddenly and spectacularly.
Quite a few of the barracks disappeared in those ways and some still threaten to do so. Others have been rebuilt and renovated, turned into warehouses, workshops, apartments, homes, shops and one even became a radio station.
As for the other structures, the Old Movie Theatre was left empty of everything except unused popcorn boxes for many years, but it is now occupied by heavy equipment. The hangars have never been fully renovated, but they’ve managed to keep standing almost all by themselves, and part of the former main hangar was rebuilt in the 1990s to serve as a liquid oxygen plant.
That enterprise can be thanked for saving the Old Control Tower, which is attached to the hangar and suffered considerable damage during the low-level flying protests of the 1980s. It would likely not have survived without the repairs it subsequently received from the LOX plant’s owner.
The Old Chapel was given new life when it was renovated to become part of a training facility. Nearby, an H-block that had been used as a social club for many years, but was suffering rot from decades of neglect, has been rebuilt as a commercial complex.
As for the Old Map Building, for many years it was the Labrador Heritage Society Museum. A caretaker’s suite provided a home for
an in-house janitor/repairman, and volunteers who lived in nearby barracks conducted historical research and looked for ways to best display the many artifacts — also conducting tours when requested.
When the museum closed and the artifacts moved to North West River, the building reverted to the provincial housing authority, which then passed it into private hands. It has been inhabited infrequently over the years and was mostly allowed to deteriorate until many of the windows were broken, their rooms open to the elements.
Finally, last fall, the businessman who operates a trucking company on the neighbouring lot bought the Old Map Building, fully intending to tear it down and get it out of his way.
Wayne Dawe says he just couldn’t do it. As soon as he examined the building, saw how well it had been made, how little rot had actually set in and how, for the most part, the old local-cut lumber still looked like new, he decided not to destroy it. He came up with a way to save it, instead. He’d make it into apartments.
Dawe did not seek government help to preserve this architectural and historical treasure, but he did look for the local municipality’s permission in the form of a building permit.
It was denied.
All he could get was a permit to redo the windows and exterior siding. Dawe says he’s not allowed to renovate the interior into apartments, despite the fact that there are permanent residences and apartments all around the Old Map Building, because the Old Canadian Side is zoned exclusively commercial/industrial.
Dawe says he can get a permit to do up another caretaker’s suite, but only if he converts the rest of the building into commercial use, which would probably mean damaging its historical character with the installation of a new opening for a large garage door.
The Canadian Side’s zoning is a ridiculous fiction. As long as the Happy Valley-Goose Bay council denies that it is already residential, it will pointlessly stand in the way of a worthwhile attempt to provide affordable housing and preserve an important piece of Labrador’s history.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.