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.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Creamer's Dairy on a sunny August morning

I am working on a drawing of Creamer's Dairy and popped out there yesterday to check on some building details. While I was there I took some more photos. At left is a photo showing (from left to right) the farmhouse, creamery, and barns.

Below is a close-up detailing the ventilators on top of the barns.

The State of Alaska owns the land and buildings. They are part of Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. However, the non-profit organization, Friends of Creamer's Field (FCF) is beginning restoration work on the barns, creamery and parts of the old farmhouse. This summer they have been painting the buildings' exteriors.

To the left is a shot of the farmhouse. It is used cooperatively by the Department of Fish and Game and the FCF for environmental and nature education.

The core of this building is an old log cabin, moved three miles in the early 1900s from the dairy's previous location just across the Chena river from downtown Fairbanks.

The photo to the right shows the barns from the other side of the farmhouse. It gives you a better idea of the size of the barns. The largest barn is 110 feet long, 36 feet wide, and has a huge loft large enough to hold sufficient hay to get  50+ cows through a long Fairbanks winter. The second barn (attached end to end) is almost as big, but doesn't has as big a loft.

To the left is a photo of the old manager's house and bunkhouse. At the peak of the dairy's business it employed between 12 and 16 people at the dairy and out in the fields.

Below is a close-up of one of the barn ventilators, prime roosting territory for pigeons (at least when it's not migration time and hawks are moving through the area).

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A drawing of one of my favorite species of fish - the Arctic grayling


The Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) is a distant cousin of  trout and salmon. It tastes great and is fun to catch. With its sail-like dorsal fin and streamlined body, it is one of the most beautiful fishes in Alaska. Grayling occur through the Arctic, from central Russia through Alaska and as far east as the western shores of Hudson's Bay in Canada. They were once found as far south as Michigan and Montana.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Groundhog at Birch Hill Cemetery

Contrary to a popular misconception, there are groundhogs (Marmota monax) in Alaska, and they are not recent immigrants. I read one misinformed blog post that said they hitchhiked to Alaska after the Alaska Highway was opened, but according to an article in the February 03, 2010 issue of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, groundhogs have been here at least 100 years. The earliest specimen in the University of Alaska Museum of the North from the Fairbanks area was collected  in 1937.

I’ve occasionally glimpsed the one that lives at Creamer’s Dairy, but a great place to observe them is at Birch Hill Cemetery. Several years ago at least, a thriving colony of groundhogs resided there. When I worked at the cemetery as a groundskeeper they were one of the banes of my existence because they burrowed under headstones and grave covers. Groundhogs are cautious creatures and if they see you will disappear into a culvert or hole. You can spot them up there though, if you are patient.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mushrooms at Birch Hill Cemetery

The rainy season is upon us, and so are the mushrooms. I was up at Birch Hill Cemetery, on the northeast corner of Fairbanks, and took these photos of some of the mushrooms I saw.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Robins are hogging the swimming hole

The watering hole in out front yard

There is a small fresh water pool in my from yard, partially sheltered by the branches of a juniper. Nearby there are some small birch trees and a few standing stones. When I come out the front door in the morning all the birds (chickadees, juncoes, and yellow-rumped warblers to name a few) tell me it's time to replenish the water.

A robin checking me out before claiming the pool

It has been common for the birds to share the watering hole, but recently they have had problems. A family of robins nests somewhere on the property, and this past week the entire brood has been hogging the bath tub.

While a robin wallows in the water a junco waits its turn

It seems like each robin will take at least five minutes dunking itself, and since there are two parents and four fledglings, this family affair can take quite a while. I've  even observed the robins sometimes chasing other birds away.

An LBJ (little brown jobbie) waits its turn on the standing stone

As you can imagine, the line to use the pool can get long at times. I've sometimes seen at least four robins and a half dozen other birds flitting around the front yard, waiting their chance to get to the water.

McCarty Stamp Mill looks like it won't survive much longer

On the same day we visited the Nordale Adit at the head of Wolf Creek, we also drove to the other side of the ridge and hiked in to the McCarty Stamp Mill at the head of Fairbanks Creek. The mill was originally built by Tom Gilmore, Felix Pedro’s partner. Lew McCarty and his son later bought the mill.

Stamp mills crush ore. Pistons with heavy steel stamps are raised and then dropped to crush the rocks. If a stamp mill has more than one stamp, some sort of cam is usually used to alternately raise and drop the pistons. The McCarty Mill had two stamps and could crush 10 tons of ore per day. Ore from the Nordale Adit was processed here.

The photo above shows the mill as it looks today, hemmed in by tall alders. To the left is a closer look, showing the building starting to cave in.

The mill is three stories tall, built into the side of the hill. On the side of the building, at different levels, were windows we could look through. (There was no way I was going into the building!)

The one benefit of a collapsing roof is enough light to photograph without flash. To the left is a shot of the stamping machinery. The stamps are on the lower level. The pistons  come up through the floor and attach to a cam shaft on the second level. The can shaft is operated off a belt-driven pulley to the right.

Below is another, closer shot of the stamps, taken from a window right next to them. Aside from the heavy machinery there isn't much left in the building.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

John Haines's homestead still provides inspiration

 …Here is the place I came to,
the lost bridge, my camp
made of shouldered boards
nailed to this hill, by a road
surveyed out of nowhere.

A door blows aside in the wind,
and a path worn deep to the spring
showers familiar leaves.

A battered dipper shines here
In the dusk; the trees stand close,
their branches are moving,
In flight with the rustling of wings...

(From the poem “Homestead” in “News from the Glacier.” 1982)
Seventy miles southwest of Fairbanks near Richardson, lies the homestead that birthed poet and essayist John Meade Haines. Not physically of course — he was 23 years old when he came to Alaska — but metaphorically. Over several decades, it was that homestead and the country around it that shaped much of his writing. In his poem, “Homestead,” he wrote, “The land gave up its meaning slowly, as the sun finds day by day, a deeper place in the mountain.”

John Haines was not a prolific writer, but he was a sublime poet and essayist who spent much of his adult life in Alaska. Haines and his writings, at least in his early years in Alaska, were rooted in the earth. His poems and essays are often deeply introspective and filled with haunting imagery of the wilderness around him and the few humans who shared it with him.

In addition to numerous other honors he received, he was a former Port Laureate of Alaska and was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Congress.

Trained as an artist, Haines drove to Alaska in 1947, hoping to make his career as a painter. He bought a 160-acre homestead on a hillside above the Tanana River near Richardson and set about building a home. (Click here for photos of the homestead.)

An abandoned section of the Richardson Highway ran through his homestead, as did Gasoline Creek (so named because Richardson was one of the few places along the highway where motorists could obtain fuel). On the advice of a local sourdough, Haines salvaged planking and squared timbers from an old bridge across the creek, and built a 12-foot by 16-foot frame cabin a few hundred feet away along the down-slope edge of the abandoned right-of-way. A south-facing window-filled wannigan and enclosed entry to the east was added later.

Eventually, a string of buildings (including an old trapper’s cabin moved from Banner Creek) lined the edge of the road. The trapper’s cabin served as his workshop, and an outhouse and several storage sheds completed the line-up. On the up-slope side of the road were his garden plot and greenhouse. Dan O’Neill, a friend of Haines, told me that poet William Stafford, also one of John’s friends, once said John’s little assemblage of buildings looked “like a train coming around the curve.”

Although Haines moved to Alaska as a painter, he eventually abandoned art (when as he says, his paints froze) and took up writing. That hardly paid any bills during his early years in Alaska, so he earnestly lived the life of a homesteader — gardening, hunting, trapping, fishing and working odd jobs. It is from these experiences on the homestead that much of his writing sprang.

His success as a writer allowed him to step away from some of the duties of a homesteader, and he eventually built a small writing studio uphill from his cabin. In 1969 he sold the homestead, moving to the Lower 48. He returned to Alaska years later, living at the old homestead for a time before moving to Anchorage and then Fairbanks. He died in Fairbanks in March 2011.

On top of the ridge above his homestead there is a bench in a small south-facing clearing where Haines would sit and ponder, gazing out over the Tanana River Valley. It is here that some of his friends gathered last summer to scatter his ashes. Attached to a stone near the bench is a memorial plaque with a single line from his essay, “Spring.” It reads simply “Be still, like a stone in the sun.”

For more posts about John Haines see:

Little remains of Richardson

An afternoon at John Haines homestead

Drawing of Tanana River from John Haines homestead

John Haines cabin on a sunny February morning


• Conversation with Dan O’Neill, long-time friend of John Haines

• “John Haines, A Poet in the Wild,” obituary in the March 5, 2011 New York Times, by Douglas Martin

• “Other Days, Selections from a Work in Progress,” essays by John Haines, 1982

• “The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer,” collected poems by John Haines, 1993

• “The Poetry of John Haines,” (the introduction to “New Poems: 1980-1988”), edited by Dana Gioia

• “The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-five Years in the Alaska Wilderness, by John Haines, 1989