On the rare morning you find it empty, it’s fun to tour the bright, echoing halls of Smithers’ Central Park Building and imagine its 1920’s tenants rubbing shoulders with Smithereens today.
Up on the third floor, where a likely well-moustached RCMP sergeant once lived with his wife and kids, you’ll now find a suite of art and music studios.
“This is the best room,” says Janet Harris, president of the Central Park Building Society, jingling one of her many keys to show off Linda Stringfellow’s painting class.
Inside, a row of neatly curtained windows look straight down Main Street, and a table of brushes and paints stands ready for the kids who will run up here this summer after dance.
Harris points out the rust-coloured floor: an indestructible, “battleship lino” that the building society recently tore out of every other studio but this one, where it nicely catches a lot of paint.
Next door, tucked in a closet full of guitar amps and distortion pedals, Harris points to another upgrade: new wall panels to insulate the building’s drafty roof.
“It used to be like a haunted ice palace outside,” she says. “Icicles would come down from the roof almost like tusks.
“We didn’t see that this year, so the insulation is paying off.”
Stepping to the second floor, Harris passes by freshly stuccoed walls and re-sanded doorways.
Those renos are more fun to do, she says, but really it’s money-saving things like new roof insulation, fire sensors, and a $63,000 natural gas boiler that will keep Central Park buzzing for years to come.
Next, Harris stops in what might be the loudest room in the building: a spacious dance studio on the second floor.
“Well, I’m a tap teacher, so I’m the worst offender,” she explains, adding that the dance studio is right overtop the office of the Bulkley Valley Museum.
“They’re very patient,” she says.”I’ve gone down there the odd time when the kids are practicing and it’s just relentless.”
Here, if you can again imagine 1920’s Smithers, you get another fantastic double picture.
In the same room where tai chi, yoga classes and some 300 dancers now learn their moves, a judge held court to try the likes of bank robber James Wesley Burke, sentenced in 1929 to 10 lashes and five years for stealing $2,000 and twice escaping a weeks-long manhunt.
Central Park, it seems, has always been humming.
Where the genealogical society meets, the art gallery shows, and the museum now collects its exhibits, there once stood a whole jail and a warren of government offices that handled everything from farm titles to tax disputes and gold claims.
“I love the fact this is such a pretty building, it’s historical, and yet it’s so functional,” Harris says. “It’s really being used.”
But while today it seems like an almost inevitably busy place and community fixture, Central Park Building is lucky to be standing at all.
Former Mayor Gordon Williams remembers the night when, after many bitter disputes over operating costs in the 1970s, Smithers town council voted against his wishes to have the province burn the building to the ground.
“That was my first term as mayor and there was an awful lot I didn’t know,” he says, laughing.
“The next morning, I went in as soon as the doors opened and asked the town administrator Jim Franklin if there was there anything I could do.”
Franklin said that as mayor, Williams had 30 days to recall the motion for a second vote.
In the meantime, a letter in The Interior News by Dave Havard, calling on the town to save the Central Park Building, raised a lot of feathers.
“I think that carried quite a bit of weight,” Williams said. “People saw it as a landmark for Main Street and didn’t want to see it disappear.”
By the next vote, council reversed its decision.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I’d said, ‘Well, they passed a motion, I guess that’s it,’” says Williams.
On the other hand, critics had been right about the high cost of running the building, which the fire commissioner had to close to the public in 1982.
But thanks to dozens of fundraisers and committed volunteers like electrician Tadik Then and engineer Norma Read, the building got major repairs and reopened.
Today, Harris says the Central Park Building Society is amazed by what they call the “little renaissance” of 2010
to 2012, when town and regional district grants, as well as funds from the B.C. and federal gas tax bought $140,000 in upgrades.
Watching it all happen, Harris says Central Park’s history no longer feels so far away.
“You start to appreciate people in the past who have helped to keep things alive.”