Friday, August 31, 2012

Old City Hall part of modernization of downtown Fairbanks

By the 1930s, residents of Fairbanks were fed up with the fires that plagued downtown. In its short life, the city had already experienced two district-consuming conflagrations and numerous other building fires. Consequently, in the latter 1920s the city began requiring downtown businesses to build “fireproof’ structures.

Austin “Cap” Lathrop was the first to experiment with poured concrete buildings when he built the Empress Theater on Second Avenue in 1927 (now the Co-op Plaza). The Federal Court and Post Office building, completed in 1933, used the same technique. The city’s school was destroyed in a December 1932 fire and was succeeded by the concrete Main School.

So it was understandable that when Fairbanks’ residents decided the city’s wood-frame firehouse had to be replaced that the new building would be concrete. Henry Bittman, a prominent Seattle architect involved in designing many Northwest landmarks, was selected to design the structure.

Bittman’s design, a two-story building combining fire and police stations and City Hall, was constructed at the corner of Cushman Street and Fifth Avenue in 1935. The building (what we now call Old City Hall) has an art deco influence, with its emphasis on symmetry, rectilinear design, utilizing parallel lines and right angles, repeated low relief geometrical decoration and stepped-back structural elements. A belt of incised design encircles the structure below a parapet decorated with raised medallions. The corners of the building, with their vertically stacked grooves, mimic stone.

It fits in nicely with the Federal Courthouse and Main School (both art deco buildings located along Cushman Street). The three buildings anchored the downtown area and represented the city’s transition from a rough-and-tumble frontier town to a more settled, refined city.

As originally designed, the Old City Hall was 50 feet long and 48 feet deep. A large ground-level bay for fire equipment was located to the right of the centrally located Cushman Street entrance. A smaller bay was located at the rear of the building off Fifth Avenue.

The city clerk’s office was in the southeast corner of the first floor. The City Council chambers and the police and fire department offices, kitchen, dormitory and equipment rooms were on the second floor.

A 24-by-36 addition (housing additional fire equipment and offices) was constructed at the rear of the building in the 1940s. The addition also used poured concrete and was built to match the original’s design. It was set back from the street to allow access to the rear equipment bay.

A new police and fire station was constructed in the 1960s, and the freed up space in Old City Hall was converted to additional office space. The only exterior changes were replacing the wooden bay doors with wooden siding and windows. In 1994, the City Council voted to move city offices into the Main School Building. Old City Hall is still owned by the city but leased to the Downtown Association of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks Community Museum. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

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