Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Old Federal Building in Fairbanks anchors downtown district

Old Federal Building in Fairbanks in about 2000

The book “Ghosts of the Gold Rush” recounts that many long-time Fairbanks residents believed the reason Fairbanks prospered and Chena City (at the confluence of the Chena and Tanana Rivers and consequently in a better location for steamboat traffic) failed was because of the machinations of E.T. Barnette and Judge James Wickersham.

Barnette and Wickersham met serendipitously in St. Michael in 1902 where Barnette, who still had dreams of starting a trading post at Tanana Crossing, was supervising the construction of a shallow-draft steamship to transport him up the Tanana River. Wickersham was impressed with Barnette and told him if he named his trading post after Senator Charles W. Fairbanks of Indiana (whom Wickersham admired) he would do everything in his power to help Barnette succeed.

Felix Pedro’s discovery of gold in a tributary of the Chena River the same year changed Barnette’s plans for moving his trading post, and the new town on the Chena became Fairbanks. When Wickersham moved the Third Judicial District’s headquarters from Eagle to Fairbanks in 1903, the new courthouse and federal jail were built on land donated by Barnette. Old timers believed it was the government presence, represented by the federal courthouse, that ensured Fairbanks’ survival. (for a post on Wickersham's move to Fairbanks click here.)

The original wood-frame courthouse burned down, along with most of the downtown business district in 1906 and was quickly replaced with another wood-frame structure built with green lumber. Coupled with a poor foundation, inadequate load-bearing walls, and a poor design, the building deteriorated rapidly and by the 1910s residents were clamoring for a new building.

After repeated requests, in 1931 the federal government appointed George N. Ray, a prominent Washington D.C. architect, to design the building, and allocated $424,000 for its construction. The construction contact was let in March of 1932 and in August 1934 the building was dedicated by Fairbanks Mayor E. B. Collins, Alaskan Congressional Delegate Anthony J. Dimond, and Second Assistant Postmaster General Harlee Branch.

The courthouse building, which also housed the post office and other federal agencies, is shown in the drawing. The large reinforced concrete building is 128 feet long and 92 feet wide, occupying an entire city block on Cushman Street between Second and Third avenues. It has three full floors with a small central section rising an additional level.

The building is decidedly Art Deco in design and use of materials. It is symmetrical, composed of three sections, with each section having three bays. The design elements are rectilinear, and the building utilizes repeated low relief geometric decorations.

Aluminum, which was a popular decorative material during the art deco, is used extensively in the building. The metal was relatively rare and hard to manufacture during most of the 1800s — in fact it was once called the Prince of Metals because of its scarcity. New production methods at the end of the 19th century brought it out of the luxury market and into common usage as a design and architectural element.

Incised aluminum panels are used on the old federal building to decorate the parapet and between the window bays. The front entrance also has cast aluminum doors and aluminum transom grills cast in the shape of eagles. The four large wall-mounted entry lanterns beside the front doors also used to be aluminum but they have been replaced.

The federal court, post office, and other federal agencies occupied the building until 1977, when they moved to a new federal building on 12th Avenue near the Steese Expressway.

The old federal building is now privately owned and is occupied by private offices, but it is still a splendid anchor for the downtown area.

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