Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Historic Mary Lee Davis House - From plush early Fairbanks home to popular modern B&B

Mary Lee Davis House in Fall 2000, before restorations began


In today’s world of mega-houses, the wood-frame bungalow at 410 Cowles Street known as the Mary Lee Davis House doesn’t stand out, but in early Fairbanks, this “cottage” was one of the most elegant houses in town.

According to the Borough’s Commission on Historic Preservation, it was built in 1916 by Arthur Williams (who owned the Arcade Café) for his new bride, Lucille. Depending on who tells the story, Lucille was either a young socialite visiting Fairbanks with her family when she met Williams, or a “good-time girl” whom Williams reformed. In either case, she evidently needed enticement to endure Interior Alaska, and Williams provided it in the form of a grand home.

The 32-foot by 48-foot 1 ½ story house was probably based on plans from one of the builders’ guides popular at the time. It has five rooms on the main floor, three upstairs (each with a dormer window), and basement. Some of the luxuries built into the house were oak floors, doors and trim; leaded glass windows; indoor plumbing (with elaborate porcelain fixtures); and a large veranda running along the entire front of the house, which faced Cowles Street. It was set back from the street in the middle of a large yard, unusual in early Fairbanks.

Williams “imported” workmen and much of the finish material for the job from Seattle. In addition to the house, the workmen also built a 20-foot by 20=foot attached garage and a small heated greenhouse.

Arthur and Lucille only enjoyed the house for three years. In May 1919, just a few months after a disastrous fire destroyed much of the downtown business district (including the Arcade Café) Arthur died of heart disease. Lucille quickly sold the house and moved to Seattle.

The new owners were Allen and Mary Lee Davis. Allen was a mining engineer, sent by the U.S. Bureau of Mines to open a mining experiment station in Fairbanks, and Mary was a writer. Together they fixed up the still unfinished house.

Mary wrote three non-fiction books about Alaska, and enjoyed talking about her home in them. In her first Alaska book, We are Alaskans, she wrote that they, “bought and completed a frame bungalow that had staunch double walls filled in between with several inches of sawdust, to make it warm in winter and cool in summer. This was really a charming cottage, gray painted, green roofed, with wide and spacious porch, window-boxes full of bright blossoms, hanging baskets with flowering vines in them, and the house was set back restfully from the street in a lawn of smooth-clipped grass that was our particular pride, for lawns were a true luxury and a daring experiment in this land of moss and under-frozen soil.

Mary also wrote that they equipped the house “with every electrical devise we could have to make our living easy and less complicated.” Other niceties they installed (which Mary credited to her engineer husband), included the first open fireplace in Fairbanks, open oak bookcases on either side of the fireplace, a built-in vacuum system with fireproof  bin in the basement, and the first coal-fired furnace in Fairbanks.

The Davises sold their home to the Fairbanks Exploration Company in 1927, which used it to house company executives. It also became a popular venue for hosting company parties and gatherings.  

The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It underwent major renovations between 2003 and 2007, and is now owned by Van Newstrom and William Albee, who operate it as Alaska Heritage House Bed and Breakfast.

Sources:

  •   A place of belonging: five founding women of Fairbanks, Alaska. Phyllis Demuth Movius. University of Alaska Press. 2009 
  •  Conversation with Van Newstrom, current owner
  • Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985·         Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  •  “Mary Lee Davis House, National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form.” Carol A. Rawlinson. National Park Service, 1979 
  •  “The House that love built…and rebuilt.” Mara Severin. Alaska Home Magazine. Spring 2009
  • We are Alaskans. Mary Lee Cadwell Davis. W.A. Wilde Company. 1931



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