Friday, February 7, 2014

Gilcher Building in Fairbanks displays city's last old-time storefront



 
Gilcher Building in Fall 2013

The Gilcher Building at 524 Third Avenue in downtown Fairbanks (where River City Café is located) is the last example in the city of the storefront style found across the United States in the early 1900s. During that period, stores typically had recessed doorways and large plate-glass windows fronting the buildings’ first floors.

Janet Matheson’s book, Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey, states that similarly configured storefronts in the early 1900s usually had ornate metal facades on the upper levels. However, by the time the Gilcher Building was constructed, architectural fashion tended towards cleaner, simpler designs. The building’s Third Avenue entrance (on its south side) reflects this, and its cornice consists of wide unadorned boards with thin, plain molding. The building did originally have a brick-patterned metal façade on its east side, though.

William H. Gilcher, who was a sheet metal worker, owned the building. Gilcher came north from California in the 1898 stampede to the Klondike. Documents in the Yukon Archives indicate he worked as a tin smith in Dawson City until 1904, when the newly established gold camp at Fairbanks beckoned. By 1907 he was operating the Tanana Sheet Metal Works on Turner Street between First and Second Avenues.

Some time later he moved his business to Third Avenue. The Fairbanks North Star Borough Historic Preservation Commission states that his building on Third Avenue was constructed in 1931. However, Janet Matheson’s book indicates that he was operating from the Third Avenue location at least as early as 1927. Matheson speculates that the building there began as a single-story structure some time before 1920, the second story was added during the 1920s, and the Third Avenue facade was constructed in the 1930s.

The Gilcher building originally stretched from Second to Third Avenue. Gilcher operated his metal working business out of the Second Avenue side and an appliance business off Third Avenue. Apartments were located upstairs.

Gilcher retired from the business and moved to California in 1948. In the years after his departure the building gradually deteriorated, and the northern half of the building (facing Second Avenue) was eventually torn down.

The Nordale Hotel used to be adjacent to the Gilcher Building. (It was where the Big Ray’s parking lot is now.) When the Nordale burned down in 1972 the Gilcher Building was in disrepair, failing to meet city fire and safety codes. The city, wanting to improve the block, prodded the building’s owners into undertaking remedial work, saving the building from destruction. The corrective measures included removing the metal siding on the east side of the building and converting the upstairs residences into offices and storage.

Vivian Stiver bought the building in 2004 and extensively renovated it for use as a cafe. She told me that during the initial renovation, workers carted off 400 to 500 pounds of sawdust that had filled the space between floors. She also said that there used to be a large side door into the building where the 1st floor windows facing the parking lot are now. When rehabbing that wall she discovered scorch marks on the structural supports, presumably where embers from the Nordale hotel fire fell through the doorway into the Gilcher Building.

Stiver replaced the building’s electrical and plumbing systems, and changed the interior layout considerably. In a nod to the building’s historic nature, she left the original timber uprights and plank flooring in the café part of the building exposed. (She laments that because of the continued deterioration of the original planking she will probably have to eventually put new flooring in.) Stiver also restored the second floor to residential space.

She has continued to make improvements to the building, most recently replacing the plate-glass windows facing Third Avenue with slightly smaller energy-efficient windows. The detailing around the Third Avenue doors is still original though. When she finishes work on the Third Avenue entrance she wants to paint the building in a “Painted Lady” style, with a multi-colored exterior that draws attention to the building’s design elements.

Sources:
  

  • Conversation with Vivian Stiver, current owner
  • Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough Historic Preservation Commission signage at Gilcher Building
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  • Obituary for W. H. “Billy” Gilcher, in Alaska Sportsman magazine. December 1963
  • William Gilcher Collection. Yukon Archives

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