Saturday, February 18, 2012

Quirky Eielson building at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has an art deco history all its own

The University of Alaska (established in 1915 as the Alaska College of Agriculture and School of Mines) sits on a ridge with a commanding view of the Tanana and Chena River flats. People have been using the site since prehistoric times to scout for game on the floodplain, and there are several archeological sites on campus. The ridge, adjacent to the FairbanksAgricultural Experiment Station, was a natural choice for the university.

The first generation of campus buildings were all wood-frame, and no major structures survive from that time period. The second generation of campus buildings were reinforced-concrete structures. The Eielson Memorial Building (with a modified Art Deco design) and the adjacent Signers’ Hall (originally the university gymnasium) date from the mid-1930s.

The Eielson Building has a fascinating history to go along with its design. The building is named after Colonel Carl Ben Eielson, Fairbanks schoolteacher and pioneering aviator. In 1924 Eielson received the first air mail contract in Alaska, delivering mail from Fairbanks to McGrath. He is perhaps better known for flying the first airplane across the Arctic Ocean in 1928. Eielson and his mechanic were killed in 1929 when their airplane crashed during a flight to rescue the passengers and crew of  a three-masted schooner, the Nanuk, trapped by sea-ice off the coast of Siberia. (The Nanuk survived the winter and was later sold to MGM studios. It was used in "Mutiny on the Bounty," "Treausre Island" and other movies.)

According to university records, sentiment in Alaska quickly turned to establishing a permanent memorial for Eielson. A committee representing the fraternal and civic organization in Fairbanks decided that a concrete building, the "Colonel Carl Ben Eielson Building of Aeronautical Engineering" should be constructed at the University of Alaska.

The building, as originally designed, would have been an impressive structure: two stories plus daylight basement, 54 feet wide by 84 feet long, with Jacobian (17th Century English) embellishments and octagonal towers at the southwestern and northwestern corners. Construction began in 1934 but the building committee quickly ran into problems raising funds and by 1935 only the first floor had been completed. The designers then modified their plans,  simplified the building. When it was completed in 1940 it emerged as an Art Deco-style structure.

It is still an impressive building (the same size as that called for in the original plans), and one of my favorites in the Fairbanks area. The corner towers were never completed, but if you look closely the first floors of the towers are visible. The northwestern tower base is partially hidden by Siberian Peas and other shrubs, but the southwestern base (sheltered by a large choke-cherry tree) is plainly visible from Salcha Street. I'm also captivated by the decorative metalwork on the fire-escape at the southern end of the building.

Looking at the original architectural drawing, it appears the southwestern tower may have been planned as a stairwell. Now, the tower base is a large corner nook (housing the manager's small
library) in the university's Office of Multicultural Affairs and Diversity.

All-in-all it’s a quirky building with a quirky history, but I love it.

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