Friday, August 17, 2012

Historic Fairbanks bathhouse a home for many different groups

The simple but graceful two-story building at 815 First Ave. began life as the First Avenue Bath House. In the early 1900s, indoor plumbing was a rarity in the Fairbanks area and hot baths were a luxury. A handful of bathhouses, including the one on First Avenue, sprang up in Fairbanks to serve the needs of the city and the thousands of miners in the surrounding area.

According to the book, “This Old House, the Story of Clara Rust,” Cora Madole was the bathhouse’s proprietor. (Rust was Madole’s daughter.) Madole, also known as Madame Renio, had been a fortune teller in Dawson City during the Klondike gold rush, who moved to Fairbanks in 1903. In 1906 she and her business partner, “Doc” Overgaard, built the bathhouse. The building consists of a small two-story section (about 12 feet by 18 feet) at the front of the structure and a long narrow (about 24 feet by 80 feet) one-story section stretching back the length of the lot. Madole’s apartment was upstairs.

Doc Overgaard had a health clinic in the small first floor room fronting First Avenue and his apartment was tucked underneath the stairs. Doc evidently wasn’t a real doctor. At least part of his “health clinic” income seems to have been derived from sobering up inebriated miners.

The rest of the building was devoted to the bathhouse. It had three bath stalls plus a steam room with a massage slab. Small rooms were located behind the bath stalls where customers could rest or even spend the night. At the rear of the building was a boiler shed.

Unfortunately, the bathhouse’s water pipes froze during the winter of 1909-10 and Madole’s business was forced to close. The nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places states that the The International Order of Odd Fellows (a benevolent, service-oriented organization) bought the building soon thereafter to use as its meeting hall, converting Doc’s apartment into a bathroom, the front clinic into a kitchen and the rest of the first floor into a meeting and social room.

The Golden North Rebekah Lodge (a sister organization to the Odd Fellows) purchased the building in 1967. It removed the boiler shed on the back of the building, renovated the kitchen and remodeled the meeting room. Between 2000 and 2003 the lodge replaced the badly deteriorated original foundation and the building’s metal roof. 

For over 90 years the Odd Fellows and Rebekah Lodges served the Fairbanks community from their First Avenue location, working on service projects, opening the building for community events and offering aid during local disasters.

However, due to declining membership, the Rebekah Lodge closed its doors in 2007. Local businesswoman and history buff Candy Waugaman acquired the building from the Rebekah Lodge and subsequently organized a non-profit organization, Historic Hall Inc., to manage it. Waugaman, an inveterate collector, opened, and for several years operated, a museum in the building featuring Alaska memorabilia and ephemera.

The museum is now closed and an antiques store has moved into the building, still keeping it filled with memories and memorabilia. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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