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Cemesto homes in Whitehorse, Yukon, 1944-1968

Highlights of History from The Whitehorse Star

A Guide to Whitehorse, Yukon

    One of the more unique types of housing used in Whitehorse has been the ones built in the 1940s of Cemesto, which was a sturdy, light-weight, waterproof and fire-resistant composite insulating board, 1½ inches thick, made from a core of waste sugar cane fiber (Celotex) surfaced on both sides with asbestos and cement.

The Cemesto homes first appeared in The Whitehorse Star on January 21, 1944, in a piece that reads like it was written by a Cemesto salesman:

NWSC News - Northwest Service Command, 1944

    A new "city" is rapidly nearing completion on the outskirts of Whitehorse.

    Attractively spaced through the wooded areas atop a ring of hills northwest of the town proper is a colony of new Cemesto huts. These houses, involving the use of a new type of processed wall board construction, are semi-prefabricated dwellings.

    Stone colored walls blend with surroundings, and the irregular grounds and curving drives of the area prevent a too-standardized appearance so hateful to the homemaker.

    Hailed by the designers as a new type of north country building, the Cemesto hut needs no interior insulation. Some of the newer huts, though, are being built with interior wallboard insulation as an additional precaution against extreme cold.

    The material used in construction may be best described as a celotex board impregnated on both outside surfaces with a cement-like substance. Coming in sheets like standard wallboard, Cemesto makes for rapid and relatively easy construction. It also makes the home more fireproof.

    Intended for use by refinery workers' families, the new homes are uniformly four room affairs, furnished. Two bedrooms, living room, and kitchen, and a modern bathroom with shower comprise the accommodations.

    Construction work on the Cemesto huts will be completed in the near future.

    Residents of Cemesto homes used very simple addresses in the many ads seen in The Star from 1945 into the early '50s - "Cemesto No. 18," "Cemesto No. 37," etc. The final ad with that type of address was seen on December 18, 1953.

    The next time the Cemesto homes appear in The Star was 12 years later, on April 26, 1965. Crown Assets Disposal advertised 80 buildings for sale, including 32 "Cemestos Dwellings," to be removed from Camp Takhini.

    However, on August 12, 1965, in a report on City Council activities, "Permits for moving buildings were turned down pending further information and proper sketch of finished job, and the building inspector is to be instructed that no Cemesto houses are to be moved into the town from Takhini area." There was no indication why that move was taken. On November 18, 1965, under the headline THEY DON'T WANT 'EM, an article said:

    Residents of Porter Creek don't want the army's old Cemesto houses moved into their sub-division.
    Territorial Councillor Ken Thompson, representing Porter Creek in his Whitehorse North constituency, raised a question in Council Tuesday and was waiting further discussion this week.
    City of Whitehorse has already issued instruction to their Building Inspector to prohibit transfer of the surplus houses from the Camp Takhini area into downto Whitehorse.
    Suggestion had been made that the temporary wartime buildings would make suitable summer cottages or other out-of-town dwellings.

    A week later, on November 25, 1965, a legal notice expanded the Cemesto prohibition, though still with no explanation why:

    The Territorial Council has passed the following motion respecting the removal of Cemesto Houses to Territorial Subdivisions:
    "That in the opinion of Council 'Cemesto Houses' which are being made available to the public for purchase be specifically designated by name, and not be allowed to be moved into Territorial Subdivisions in the vicinity of Whitehorse. It is recommended that the administration make the necessary amendment to the Area Development Regulations forthwith."
    Commissioner's Orders have now been made prohibiting the issuance of a Building Permit for a building classed as "Alaska Type Cemesto House Number 110A" for Porter Creek, Crestview and Canyon Crescent Subdivisions.
                        G. R. Cameron,

    On November 29, 1965, it was reported that another use for the Cemesto homes was being studied. Whitehorse Indian Chief Scurvy Shorty met with Superintendent of Yukon Indian Agency Allan Fry, and the Hon. J. R. Nicholson, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, who was chief superintendent of Indian Affairs in Canada. Nicholson had received reports about the poor condition of Indian housing, and it had been suggested that the Cemesto homes might be an improvement. In the photo below, Nicholson and another official are inspecting one of the Cemesto homes at Camp Takhini. Nothing further was seen about this study.

Cemesto home in Camp Takhini, 1965

    On September 26, 1966, an editorial in The Star began with "The housing shortage in Whitehorse is acute...even critical." It offers some solutions, and says that "all housing in Takhini is occupied at present...with some newcomers lodged in the old Cemestos which were to be torn down last spring."

    In January 1967 you could buy a Cemesto in Whitehorse from a private seller for $800 - "will move to suit."

    Despite the claim that Cemesto "makes the home more fireproof," three children aged 6, 7, and 8 lit fires that damaged two vacant ones owned by Dave Harder, reported in The Star on April 10, 1967.

    The final time the Cemesto homes appeared in The Star was on October 10, 1968, when Crown Assets Disposal advertised the last 7 of them for sale.

    I'm going to post this article in my Yukon History & Abandoned Places group now - perhaps we can discover more of the local history of the Cemesto homes.