One of the oldest and arguably most memory-filled buildings in Hay River is about to be removed.
The Zoo – actually a complex of attached log buildings constructed in the 1950s – is being taken down by the Department of Infrastructure, which acquired it in late 2016 when the GNWT bought assets of the defunct Northern Transportation Company Ltd.
At various times in its long history until it closed in 2005, The Zoo housed a bar, restaurants, a hotel, a general store, a post office and a pharmacy.
“So this was the central part of Old Town at one time,” said Gary Vickers, the manager of infrastructure and business solutions with the Department of Infrastructure.
The department recognizes the attachment that many people have to The Zoo, but believes it is beyond the point of saving because of its dilapidated state.
“A lot of people remember the old Zoo, the building, the way things were, but it’s certainly not the way things are now,” said John Vandenberg, the assistant deputy minister of Infrastructure, during a brief tour of The Zoo on June 24. “Today, it’s a health hazard and it’s a safety hazard, and as long as it stands it is. So we’re going to take steps to bring this down.”
There are now several holes in the roof of the bar section of The Zoo. Broken glass and used break-open lottery tickets cover the floors of the bar and restaurant areas. There are also broken pieces of furniture. In the restaurant area, an empty box of beer seems to indicate the building is still being entered.
Vandenberg said the department is not unsympathetic to people’s nostalgic feelings about the building.
“We’re not smashing this building,” he explained. “We’re going to take these logs down in one piece.”
Vandenberg described the work as a “controlled dismantling” in order to preserve as much of the value as possible in the cedar logs.
Vickers noted the department is open to ideas of what to do with the logs, which he said are generally in good condition.
“There are special interest groups that have expressed interest in it,” he said. “If it’s community-minded, we’re more than willing to donate. If it goes to the private sector, we need to see the level of interest before committing.”
The dismantling of the building – which has a budget of $300,000 – is expected to begin in a week or two. The work will take about six weeks.
The Department of Infrastructure has not yet determined what the land will be used for once The Zoo is removed.
As far as the department can tell, The Zoo – which covers 15,400 square feet – has never been designated an historic building.
Vickers noted that some people in the private sector once explored restoring The Zoo.
“When they’ve actually come and looked at the building, they’ve changed their mind on it,” he said. “When they see the extent of the decay of the building.”
Vickers also noted that some people passing by have been commenting about the work to prepare The Zoo for dismantling, and they have mixed reactions.
“A lot of people have the memory of the old building, yet some of the people are happy to see the building coming down, as well,” he said. “If we can repurpose whatever materials that we can, they’re happy with that.”
The Department of Infrastructure has been in contact with the Hay River Museum Society about relocating and preserving a part of The Zoo, although no agreement has yet been finalized.
“They’ve given some indication that they would like to see the post office building preserved,” Vandenberg said. “And we recognize that that’s a piece of history.”
The building that once housed a post office also served at other times as a pharmacy and a Chinese restaurant.
Tom Lakusta, chair of the Hay River Museum Society, said The Zoo is historic for the community and it would be good to see something salvaged.
“Our initial thoughts were that the buildings were in really rough shape and there wasn’t a lot that we could see as salvage as historical pieces for our community,” he said, noting that, in the past few months, Infrastructure said the old pharmacy/post office building was in pretty good shape relative to the rest of the structure.
“Informally, the museum society is seriously considering working with Infrastructure to move that building across if it can be detached and moved safely to the Hay River Museum Society site,” he added.
Lakusta noted the society does not have the resources to preserve The Zoo.
“I think everybody was interested in the potential of preserving the entire structure or at least the historical aspects of the structure – the old hotel, bar and restaurant area,” he said. “But when it was looked at, the ability to preserve that was just not there.”
Lakusta is sorry to see the loss of The Zoo, but understands the decision to remove the structure.
“In the shape that it’s been for the last 10 years, I don’t think it can be saved,” he said. “And so I think dismantling the building is the right call.”