Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Main School, now City Hall, is a Fairbanks fixture




Soon after Fairbanks was established, residents began clamoring for schools. In the fall of 1903 (even before the city was incorporated), a small private school opened. Thirteen students and their teacher met in a small cabin at the corner of Wendell and Noble streets. Unfortunately, a funding shortfall closed the school just before Christmas.


In spring 1904, a public school opened in a rented facility near Lacey Street and Third Avenue. The next fall 50 students moved into a new school building at the corner of Second Avenue and Noble Street.


The Fairbanks school population continued to grow, and in 1907, a new two-story frame schoolhouse with full basement was built on Cushman Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, the site of the present Old Main School. (A few school board members objected, saying the location was too far out of town.)

The new school building had wide front steps surmounted by a portico, and a hipped roof topped by an open belfry. In a town composed primarily of one story log cabins, the two-story school seemed a magnificent building, likened by one local pastor to an English cathedral.

The school, along with a 1929 addition, served Fairbanks children until 1932 when fired consumed the building. The structure was a loss, and classes were moved to nearby churches and civic organization facilities until a new facility was constructed.

In 1933 construction began on a 35,500-square-foot, reinforced-concrete building on the site of the old building. Plans for the new school were drawn up by the engineer responsible for the Federal Building then under construction in Fairbanks, and the school building shares many of the same Art Deco exterior design elements. As originally constructed, the building had three stories with a ground floor daylight basement. The building faced Cushman Street, with classrooms and office on all three floors and a 4,000-square-foot gymnasium extending to the rear. It was officially opened on Jan. 22, 1934.

A burgeoning student population meant the addition of a south wing in 1939 and a north wing in 1948. With both additions, close attention was paid to blending in with the old exterior. However, consistency between old and new interior floor plans was not maintained. Differing floor levels and confusing connecting hallways made the interior a maze. In his booklet, The Spirit of Old Main, a History of the Old Main School, Chris Allen related a joke that, “suggested that any senior who was able to find his way from the center of the building to the outside should be handed a graduation certificate.”

Main School remained the Fairbanks School District’s only school until 1951 when the district began building schools in outlying areas. By 1959 only junior high students remained. All students had been moved to other facilities by 1976 and the school district’s administration offices moved in. The district’s offices remained there until 1993 when a new administrative center was completed. Main School was then relinquished to the city. The building’s ground floor windows were boarded up and the heat was turned off.

The next December (1994) the city began moving its offices into the building. A year of no maintenance and no utilities meant a great deal of work needed to be done on the building.

Old Main School is in the National Register of Historic Places, and the city has a goal of restoring the building to its original floor plan. Some major renovations have already been accomplished, such as fixing the roof, refinishing the gym floor and bleachers, replacing all the windows that had been boarded up, and opening up all the hallways. Much of the credit goes to former Mayor Jerry Cleworth, who attended Main School.


Sources:

  • Conversation with Jerry Cleworth, former Fairbanks City Mayor
  • “Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey.” Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
  • “Our Schools, a History of Elementary and Secondary Public Education in the Fairbanks Area.” Fairbanks North Star Borough. 1989
  • “The Spirit of Old Main, a History of the Old Main School – 1932-1995.” Chis Allen. 1995
  • “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Russell Sackett. National Park Service. 1990

1 comment:

  1. I really love not only your awesome sketches, but the research you put into these writings. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and hard work with those of us who enjoy learning about Fairbanks history.

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