Saturday, April 5, 2014

Empress Theater brought several firsts to Fairbanks

Empress Theater as it looked in 2005, when the second floor still had one of its original multi-pane windows
Austin “Cap” Lathrop never cut corners. He felt that doing a job right the first time saved money in the long run, and when it came to constructing buildings he believed in substance—the more substance the better. So when Alaska builders started using reinforced concrete for construction projects, he began using it, too.

Lathrop owned a chain of Empress Theaters: in Cordova, Valdez, Seward and Anchorage. In 1916 he successfully constructed his Anchorage theater using reinforced concrete, so when Cap decided to build a theater in Fairbanks a decade later it was only natural to try it here.

Concrete had already been used in Fairbanks to form building blocks. (The Fairbanks Exploration Company office building is constructed of locally manufactured concrete blocks.) However, no one locally had ever built with solid concrete. Many people thought that concrete foundations would buckle when subjected to frost heaves, or that concrete would simply crumble in the region's frigid winter temperatures.

Lathrop was undeterred. He did change the building’s design before construction began though. According to Elizabeth Tower’s book, Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire, Lathrop originally planned to erect a four-story structure, with the top two stories envisioned as a hotel. By the time construction began in April of 1927 the plans had been scaled back to just the two-story theater.  Construction was finished that summer.

Tower’s book also relates that even after construction was finished, some people were dubious about the building’s durability. Federal inspectors checked the building annually for several years. Finally satisfied, in 1932 the federal government built its new Fairbanks federal building with reinforced concrete.

The Empress Theater's grand opening was August 25, 1927. A Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article written the next day stated that over 1300 people attended the gala. The theater had two performance in its 670-seat auditorium that evening, and each performance was sold out.

One of the Empress’s attractions was its 2/7 Kimball organ, the first pipe organ in Interior Alaska. The Kimball had two “manuals” (keyboards), and seven ranks (groupings) of pipes. All told the organ had about 500 pipes. Just for comparison, the concert organ at the Davis Concert Hall has about 2,000 pipes. Of course, being a theater organ, the Empress's Kimball also had percussion attachments such as drums, cymbals and glockenspiel.

As originally built, the Empress had a balanced front facade. The first floor (which has changed considerably) had recessed double doors on either side of a large expanse of plate-glass window. The second floor looked much the same as it does now, with four equally spaced windows—the two inmost windows with decorative arches.  Above were two small circular vents, and a cornice with denticulated (tooth-like) ornamentation.

The theater was remodeled in the 1950s, with major exterior changes to the front facade. The entrance on the right side of the building was converted into a small rental retail space. The central window area was reduced, and the entrance on the left was expanded. A marquee over the entrance was added and 50s-style neon signs were installed on top of the marquee.

In 1961 the Empress closed down and was assimilated into the Co-op Drug Store, another Fairbanks institution. The neon signs were removed, the first floor front fa├žade changed to its present configuration, and the auditorium, which spanned two stories, was torn out and converted into two levels of retail space and offices.

The theater's organ was removed and eventually found a home in the Steak and Pipes restaurant adjacent to the Big I Pub. When that restaurant closed down the organ was put into storage and currently sits at of another of Cap Lathrop's theaters—the Lacey, now the Fairbanks Ice Museum.

After Co-op Drugs closed, the building became part of the Co-op Plaza. The
Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre used the second floor of the Empress Building as a performance space for several years, but recently moved out. Too bad, it was nice to have the building come full circle back to a performance venue.


  • Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire, Life and Times of Cap Lathrop. Elizabeth Tower. Publication Consultants. 2006
  • Buildings of Alaska. Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
  • Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbagnks. 1985
  • Northwest Theatre Organ History. Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society website. 1998-2014
  • “Return of the Empress.” Jeff Richardson. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. January 1, 2007
  • “Thirteen hundred witness opening of new Empress.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. August 26, 1927

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Northern Commercial Company helped city of Eagle survive

Eagle NC Co. store in 2000
If you have an eye for detail the front door is a give-away. Otherwise, glancing at Eagle’s old Northern Commercial Company (NC Co.) store, shown in the drawing, you might be deceived into thinking it is a small structure. However, those seemingly four-foot tall windows along the front of the building are actually eight feet tall. Instead of being 12 feet wide, the building it is about 24 feet wide and about 60 feet long, with 10-foot ceilings.

The tall front windows, and transom window over the centrally-placed front door, which allowed as much light as possible inside, are typical of commercial buildings built across the United States in the early 1900s. There are no side windows except at the very back of the building since the walls would have been lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves.

The NC Co. (at the turn of the 20th century it was the Alaska Commercial Company) built a store at Eagle in 1898, shortly after the community was established, while the Klondike Gold Rush was in full stride. Although the Dawson City area was a major gold producer, many U.S. miners, disgruntled with Canadian regulations and unable to find claims to stake, had returned to diggings on the U.S. side of the border, establishing numerous mining camps along the Yukon River between Eagle and Circle. Many of these camps had patriotic names such as Nation, Independence, Eagle and Star City.

Eagle became a commercial and government center. A U.S. Army installation (Fort Egbert) was built there, and the town became headquarters for the Third Judicial District. Three major trading companies opened stores: The NC Co., North American Trading Company, and the Alaska Exploration Company.

According to the book, Flag over the North, the story of the Northern Commercial Company, the first NC Co. store in Eagle was a large log structure located on B Street, a few hundred yards from the river. Sometime before 1905 the log store was replaced with the current wood-frame building.

When the Third Judicial District moved its headquarters to Fairbanks in 1903 as the Klondike Gold Rush waned, the future of Eagle dimmed considerably. However, mining techniques learned in the Klondike, such as hydraulicking and dredging, opened up new areas in Alaska.  The book, Yukon, the Last Frontier, states that by 1916 there were 70 mines in the Circle-Eagle area, and in the 1930s and early 1940s the region supported seven gold dredges. Because of its location and already existing infrastructure, Eagle became a regional support center.

The NC Co. was the major trading company along the lower Yukon River. At its zenith, it owned 22 stores from Eagle near the Canadian border to St. Michael near the mouth of the river on Norton Sound. In addition to its stores, it also operated a river navigation company, as did the two other trading companies in Eagle. Over time, as Klondike mining ebbed, the NC Co. absorbed some competitors and forced others out of business. Eventually it became the sole trading company in Eagle, owning a handful of storefronts and warehouses.

Preservation plans for the Fort Egbert and Eagle Historic District indicate that by 1915 the NC Co. had centralized its store operations to a building it had acquired along the riverfront.  Although the company still owned the B Street building, it was used for a time as a restaurant.
The NC Co. closed its Eagle operations in the 1950s and the B Street building sat vacant for years.  It was acquired by the city in 1968 and later purchased by Steve Nelson, an Eagle resident. Another Eagle resident, John Borg, told me that Mr. Nelson has stabilized the building by putting in a new concrete foundation.  Although it is currently only used for storage, it remains an important part of Eagle’s history and a rare example of early Interior Alaska commercial buildings.


  • Conversation with John Borg, Eagle resident and Historic Eagle tour guide  
  • Flag over the North, the story of the Northern Commercial Company.  L. D. Kitchener. Superior Publishing. 1954 
  •  Fort Egbert and Eagle, a Preservation Plan. National Trust for Historic Preservation, for the Bureau of Land Management. 1976
  • Yukon, the Last Frontier. Melody Webb. University of New Mexico Press. 1985

Saturday, March 8, 2014

2nd Avenue cabin in Fairbanks was a safe haven for Clara Rust in 1909

Clara Rust cabin on 2nd Avenue as it looked in 1990

When 18-year-old Clara Hickman first set foot in Fairbanks in the fall of 1908, it wasn’t from a stage just arrived over the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail or down the gang-plank of a steamboat at one of the city’s docks. It was from a windswept rowboat onto the Chena River's cold, muddy bank. 

Clara had indeed come by steamer. Her 32-day journey entailed traveling by steamship from Seattle to St. Michael (near the mouth of the Yukon River), and then by stern-wheeled riverboat up the Yukon, Tanana, and Chena Rivers. 

Unfortunately, Clara was traveling in September and there was already frost on the ground. The water level of the Chena River was dropping as winter approached, and the small steamboat she was a passenger on (with an inexperienced captain) kept running aground. When the steamer grounded one last time within sight of Fairbanks, the captain acquiesced to frustrated passengers and lowered a lifeboat to take people ashore.

Clara’s family already lived in Fairbanks, so she had a comforting cabin waiting for her. Zach Hickman (her father), was an itinerant newspaperman and ran the Daily News, one of three papers in Fairbanks. He and Clara’s mother and younger sister lived in a small cabin on 8th Avenue, then the edge of town.

Clara quickly adjusted to Fairbanks, obtaining a job at Mary Anderson’s Dry Goods and Dress Shop. Since the Hickman cabin, like most in town, did not have running water, the Hickmans took baths at the First Avenue Bathhouse. Her mother became friends with Cora Madole, who owned the bathhouse, and the two Hickman sisters went there often. During this period Clara slipped into the community’s social life and fell in love with Mrs. Madole’s son, Jess Rust, who mined on Pedro Creek.

Clara’s parents were not happily married, and it wasn’t long before her mother and sister returned to Seattle. After Clara’s mother wrote requesting a divorce, her father also returned. Clara stayed in Fairbanks, however, knowing there was little in Seattle for her and wishing to stay near Jess. Before leaving town her father deeded the family’s cabin to her.

Clara was still working at Mary Anderson’s store, but living alone in the family cabin. The empty cabin eventually proved too much for Clara, and she ended up rooming with Mrs. Madole at the bathhouse.

According to Jo Anne Wold’s book, This Old House; the story of Clara Rust, Clara woke one morning in late 1909 to a frigid bathhouse. The boiler had broken, and despite work done on it during the following day, the bathhouse’s pipes froze and burst. Mrs. Madole was out of business.

Fortunately, Mrs. Madole also owned the small cabin (shown in the drawing) at 828 Second Avenue, directly behind the bathhouse. The cabin happened to be vacant so Clara and Mrs. Madole quickly switched residences.

When Cora and Clara moved in, the cabin was still in its original configuration—a 16-foot by 34-foot structure made of peeled logs with dovetailed corners. It had a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor, and two tiny bedrooms upstairs, tucked under the eaves. Normally, such an arrangement is referred to as 11/2 story, but there is so little headroom upstairs in the cabin that the Fairbanks North Star Borough Appraiser’s Office calls it a 11/4 story cabin. A shed-roofed addition was tacked onto the rear of the cabin at a later date.

Clara and Mrs. Madole only lived there a short while. Clara married Jess in 1910 and moved to the creeks, and Mrs. Madole mortgaged the 2nd Avenue cabin to help bankroll their mining. When Jess’s mine on Little Eldorado Creek flooded, they lost everything, including the 2nd Avenue cabin. 

The drawing shows the cabin as it looked in 1990, and you can see the bathhouse in the background. The cabin is still standing. Clara and Jess continued to live in the Fairbanks area and their life is chronicled in Jo Anne Wold’s book. A recommended read.


  • Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985 
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records

  • More than Petticoats: Remarkable Alaska Women. Cherry Lyon Jones. TwoDot Books. 2006

  • This Old House: the story of Clara Rust, Alaska Pioneer. Jo Anne Wold. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1981