Thursday, November 10, 2016

Anchorages's Fourth Avenue Theatre is opulent sister of Fairbanks' Lacey Street Theatre.

 
Anchorage's Fourth Avenue Theatre as it looked in 1971

A few months ago, a funeral was held in Anchorage for the city’s Fourth Avenue Theater, Austin “Cap” Lathrop’s opulent re-imagining of what the Lacey Street Theater might have been like had it been constructed a decade later.

Mark Twain, in response to a newspaper story about his demise, wrote that, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” The organizers of the Anchorage theater’s funeral are hopeful that their event is also an exaggeration — seeing it rather as a wake-up call to save the building from decades-long neglect.

During my college days in Anchorage, I spent quite a bit of time at the theater and have fond memories of it. I thought it might be appropriate to write a column about Cap Lathrop’s “other” art deco theater.

Lathrop came to Alaska in 1895 as part-owner of a small auxiliary sailboat that he and his partners used for freighting along the Alaska coast. He kept the “Cap” moniker after his maritime career ended and built a small Alaska empire based on shipping, mining, broadcasting and entertainment.

One of his ventures was a string of theaters located in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. His first art deco-styled theater was built here in Fairbanks — the Lacey Street Theater, completed in 1939.

He began a second art deco theater on Anchorage’s main street, Fourth Avenue, in 1941. The primary architect for both theaters was the well-known Seattle theater designer, Benjamin Priteca. Unfortunately, World War II intervened and work on the Anchorage theater ceased until the war’s end.

Faced with a five-year construction delay, Lathrop might have scaled back his plans for the new building. However, Elizabeth Tower, in her book, “Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire,” relates that the delay only added time for Lathrop to plan an even more elaborate theater.

Completed in 1947, the building is three stories high, 87-feet wide and 130-feet long. Built of reinforced concrete, the front facade is symmetrical with two uniformly-ornamented side bays flanking a slightly taller central bay. In the middle of the central bay stands a 40-foot tall pylon adorned with the theater’s name in art deco lettering. The exterior of the first story is finished with travertine marble, and a marquee extends over the sidewalk along the front of the building.

A penthouse was added in 1959, which is probably about the time the word “theatre” was added to the front of the building. (Lathrop preferred the British spelling.) The sign above the marquee announcing movies playing was also added at a later date.

The interior of the theater was even more opulent than the exterior, with walnut woodwork and bas-relief artwork (where elements of the artwork project slightly from the wall) highlighted with silver and gold. A lobby capable of holding 200 people greeted visitors, with one wall featuring a large bas-relief mural of Denali (formerly Mount McKinley). Curved stairs, with another bas-relief artwork depicting Alaska wildlife adorning the outside wall, led to balcony seating.

The auditorium could hold 960 people (at a time when Anchorage’s population was only about 5,000 people). On either side of the movie screen was a large floor-to-ceiling bas-relief mural depicting Alaska culture: sled-dogs, airplanes, riverboats and other Northern scenes. The ceiling had the Big Dipper inset with lights.

The Fourth Avenue Theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It survived as a movie venue until the economic slump of the mid-1980s. Alaska businessman Robert Gottstein purchased the building in 1991, restored the theater and operated it as an event hall. It was purchased in 2009 by Peach Investments Company, and has sat vacant since then, boarded up and deteriorating.

Sources:

  •  “Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire: Life and Times of Cap Lathrop.” Elizabeth Tower. Publication Consultants. 2006
  • “Buildings of Alaska.” Alison Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
  •  “Fourth Avenue Theatre, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Michael Carberry. National Park Service. 1982
  •  “Fourth Avenue Theatre.” Sandra Faulkner. Historic American Buildings Survey. 1996
  •  “Fourth Avenue Theater shows signs of life at own funeral.” Lisa Maloney. “Anchorage Press.” 7-18-2016

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

2017 Sketches of Alaska calendars are out


I just picked up calendars from the printer. These calendars, including the cover drawing, feature 14 historic sites from Deadwood Creek near Central to Eureka Lodge along the Glenn Highway.

I will be selling them at the Fairbanks Holiday Marketplace this weekend. They are also available at Gulliver's Books. Price is $10.00 a piece.

If you can't make it to either place drop me a line. I will mail them for a small additional charge.

 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Clarence Berry had major impact on Interior Alaska mining history

Berry Camp along Eagle Creek at about Mile 103 of the Steese Highway



Clarence Berry was one of the “Kings of the Klondike,” that small cohort of early gold-seekers who made fortunes in the diggings around Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.

Born in 1867, Clarence grew up near Fresno, California and by 1893 was operating a fruit farm. However, the depression of the 1890s forced him to abandon his fields. Eager for fresh opportunities, he headed to Alaska in 1894 with friends.

The group landed at Dyea, hiked over Chilkoot Pass, and eventually reached the diggings along the Fortymile River. Clarence ended up mining at Franklin Creek, a tributary of the Fortymile where gold had been discovered in 1886.

In the fall of 1895 he returned to California, and married his childhood sweetheart, Ethel Bush, in March of 1896. The day after the wedding, with little money but high hopes, Clarence, Ethel, and Clarence’s youngest brother, Fred took off for the Yukon.

Settling back into the Fortymile country, Clarence was unsuccessful at prospecting. He ended up bartending at Bill McPhee’s saloon in Forty Mile, the community at the confluence of the Fortymile and Yukon Rivers that served as the region’s administrative center.

George Carmack, who was one of the first men to discover gold in the Klondike, had to register his claims at Forty Mile, and Clarence was behind the counter when Carmack came into the saloon to announce his good fortune. Encouraged by Ethel, Clarence and Fred immediately set off up-river to stake a claim.

Their claim, along with others they acquired interests in, proved rich. According to a 2013 article by Michael Gates in the “Yukon News,” when Clarence and Ethel arrived in Seattle on the S.S. Portland in July of 1897 they carried $130,000 in gold with them—$9 million at today’s gold price.

Clarence used some of his profits to become one of the first miners in the Klondike to invest in steam equipment to improve efficiency. After noticing that steam exhaust from his boiler was thawing the ground, he ingeniously channeled the exhaust into a rubber hose and through a rifle barrel rammed into the frozen ground, consequently being credited as the first to use steam to thaw frozen ground.  He was also the first to install electric lights at his mines.

When the placer gold deposits supporting the Berrys’ mines began petering out, they moved operations to Ester Creek west of Fairbanks. Matthew Reckard, in a 1999 article in “The Ester Republic,” states that the mining camp of Berry, where the Berry family made another fortune, was located a couple of miles down Ester Creek from the camp at Ester.

From Ester, the Berrys moved on to the Circle Mining District in about 1909. Oscar Bredlie, who carried mail between Chatanika and Circle, told Jane Williams in a 1983 interview that the Berrys’ first venture in that area was at Berry Camp, on Eagle Creek south of Eagle Summit.

Berry Camp, which can be seen below the Steese Highway as you climb Eagle Summit, is shown in the drawing.  The camp, which is on the south side of Eagle Creek, was the support camp for a hydraulic mining operation. The two lines of vegetation seen at the top of the drawing mark the remains of ditches excavated to carry water from Upper Eagle Creek to mining areas lower down the creek.

The camp was located along the old winter trail over Eagle Summit.  Although never billed as a roadhouse, it was a frequent stopping place for travelers, and evidently supported a lively little community. During construction of the Steese highway in the late 1920s it was utilized as a road construction camp.

The Berrys also mined over the divide along Mammoth Creek where they successfully operated a dredge for many years. Clarence, who eventually resettled to California with Ethel, died in 1930.

Berry Camp is located on private property. Please check land status and get property owners’ permission before exploring the area.


Sources:
  • “Berry, the Post Office on Ester Creek.” Matthew Reckard. In “The Ester Republic.” Vol. 1 No. 10, October 1999
  • “Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Geological Survey professional paper 567.” Donald J. Orth. U.S. Geological Survey. 1971
  • “The Horation Alger Story of Clarence Berry.” Michael Gates. In ‘Yukon News.” 5-3-2013
  • Oscar Bredlie interview with Jane Williams on 11-2-1983. Oral History Collection at UAF Archives



Thursday, April 28, 2016

Minnie Street Bridge and Northside Grocery and Gas brought Slaterville into the modern age during 1950s


Northside Grocery as it looked in 1969

After 1939, when construction began at Ladd Field, and well into the 1950s, Fairbanks experienced a population explosion. Terrence Cole’s report, “Historic Resources of the Minnie Street Corridor,” states that between 1939 and 1950 the area’s population increased by 240 percent, and between 1950 and 1953 the population doubled to about 31,000 people.

Residential areas developed around the city’s edges, including Slaterville, which is north of the Chena River and across from downtown Fairbanks. The city’s burgeoning population, along with military activities and renewed mineral extraction in the area, severely taxed the area’s transportation system. The Minnie Street Bridge across Noyes Slough, along with the Wendell Street Bridge across the Chena River, were constructed in 1953 as part of the city’s efforts to modernize its outdated road system.

The only bridge across the Chena River before completion of the Wendell Street Bridge was the Cushman Street Bridge, built in 1917. The old two-lane steel-truss Cushman bridge was narrow, allowing only passenger vehicles to pass. Busses and trucks had to straddle the bridge’s central beam to cross.

The Minnie Street and Wendell Street bridges diverted traffic from Cushman Street. When completed, they became part of the first intentionally designed truck route through an Alaska city.

One of the most recognizable landmarks along Minnie Street is the old concrete-block Northside Grocery. Located at 140 Minnie St., it was, according to Cole’s report, built in 1952 by longtime Fairbanks resident, Carl Heflinger, in anticipation of the opening of the new bridges.

Heflinger was better-known as a miner than a merchant. Moving to Fairbanks from Anchorage in 1934, Carl worked as a drift and open-cut miner until World War II intervened and he joined the Army. Stationed at Ladd Field during the war, he met and married Dorothy Brady, and they built a home in Slaterville.

After the war and a few unsuccessful mining seasons, Dorothy convinced Carl to get a “real” job rather than return to mining. He went to work for Mitchell Truck and Tractor as a mechanic and eventually helped found GHEMM contacting. It was also during this period that he and his wife decided to put up a new building at the corner of Minnie and Clara streets next to their house.

According to Carl’s son, Dave, the gas station was more of an afterthought that a calculated plan. Carl and Dorothy wanted to build an apartment house. However, a friend suggested cutting the corner off the building at the Minnie and Clara intersection so gas pumps could be installed, and Carl decided that was an excellent idea.

Dave told me that his mother often rued the change in plans, saying it would have been much easier running just an apartment house. However, Carl, having fueled aircraft during the war, and working as a mechanic afterward, thought running a service station made sense. In addition to selling gas, he operated a towing business and repaired vehicles in a garage at the back of the building.

The Heflingers also rented out apartments in the basement and on the first floor, and later added a small grocery to the operation.

Carl eventually tired of city work and returned to mining in 1958, but he and Dorothy owned the grocery and gas station until the 1980s. After Carl left the day-to-day operation of the business, it became the first self-serve gas station in Fairbanks. Also, the ground under the garage was excavated and more basement apartments added, as well as the garage itself being converted into apartments. In The grocery, which had occupied a tiny corner of the building, also expanded.

The service station and grocery eventually closed. For a period the building was used as a religious outreach center, but has now reverted to its original purpose as an apartment house.

Sources:

  • Carl Heflinger obituary. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 12-30-2014
  • Carl Heflinger presentation to the Pioneers of Alaska on 4-17-2000. Oral History Collection at the University of Alaska Fairbanks
  • Conversation with Dave Heflinger, one of Carl’s and Dorothy’s sons
  • “Historic Resources of the Minnie Street Corridor.” Terrence Cole. Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. 1989
  • Property records at the Fairbanks North Star Borough

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Marge Gull painting of the second Richardson Roadhouse



This is the second of three roadhouses that operated at the former town of Richardson, about 75 miles south of Fairbanks—295 miles from Valdez. The first roadhouse, built by Jacob Samuelson near the Tanana River, washed away (with most of the town) in 1915. 

When the town re-located farther from the river, J. W. McCluskey and his wife built a roadhouse just south of Banner Creek. That roadhouse was called McCluskey’s at first—later called Richardson Roadhouse. As travel along the improved Richardson Highway increased, McCluskey added a trading post and sold gasoline and automotive supplies. 

Anticipating even better business he eventually doubled the size of the roadhouse. That is the structure shown in the painting.  However, even though he built it, the anticipated traffic did not come and by the end of the 1920s the roadhouse lay vacant. The log structure was eventually taken apart and moved to Fairbanks.

The third roadhouse at Richardson was built by Fred Wilkins, who homesteaded in the area and operated a general store at the town's second location. After the town washed away a second time, Wilkins moved his operation farther from the river, to the north side of Banner Creek, which is where the remains of his roadhouse still stand.

Genevieve Marguerite (Marge) Gull (who died in 2013) came to Alaska with her husband in 1938, living first in Fairbanks and then Anchorage. She was an amateur painter and painted 49 of the roadhouses along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.

I assume that at least some of the paintings were done from photographs since many of the roadhouses disappeared long before Marge came to Alaska. This painting is in the collection of the Valdez Museum.

Friday, April 15, 2016

1950s-era Tamarac Inn in Fairbanks being renovated

The Tamarac Inn, a small motel that was built in the early 1950s, is currently undergoing renovation.
The building was actually pieced together from surplussed military housing units from Ladd Field that weren't needed after the end of World War II. With roofing and some of the siding stripped off, you can actually see where the units were stitched together. Neat  way to view history.