Thursday, December 31, 2015

Patty House in Fairbanks, Alaska is a testament to city's coming of age

Patty House in 2009

The 1¾ story house at 909 Sixth Ave. is very much a product of its time. Referred to as the Patty House, it was built in 1937, several years after Fairbanks successfully emerged from a decade-long economic slump that dated back to the early 1910s.

An area-wide revival began with the Alaska Railroad’s completion in 1923. The Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines opened its doors in 1922, and the Fairbanks Exploration Company commenced gold dredging operations in the late 1920s. Combined with the gradual rise of the price of gold (controlled by the federal government) to almost $35 per ounce by 1935, Fairbanks experienced a new economic prosperity.

Buoyed by the city’s improved fortunes and confident in its future, residents were replacing their log cabins with more expensive wood-frame houses. Many of the more affluent were building period revival homes. The styling of these houses harkened back to earlier classical architectural periods for inspiration.

The Sixth Avenue structure is one such house. With its steeply pitched gable roof, prominently displayed massive chimney, arched entrance doorway, narrow multi-paned windows, and asymmetrical floor plan, the Patty House has many of the elements of Tudor Revival, which was inspired by English architecture from 1500 to 1559. This style was very popular in the United States up through the 1930s.

The house was built by Ernest Patty and his wife, Kathryn. The two had arrived in Fairbanks shortly before the college opened its doors in September 1922. Ernest was the new school’s professor of geology and mining.

Ernest became dean of the college in 1925. In 1935, he resigned from the school (by then the University of Alaska) to become general manager of a private company that as part of its activities developed gold dredging at Coal and Woodchopper Creeks, which are tributaries of the Yukon River.

His business venture was successful and two years later the Pattys built their dream home.
The house was actually constructed around an earlier log cabin that had been owned by Fairbanks resident, George Moody. Current owner, Eric Bergh, told me the cabin was erected or perhaps moved onto the site, which was built up with ash and clinkers from the Northern Commercial Company’s power plant just a few blocks away.

Moody’s cabin was a large multi-room structure — about the size of the present house’s first floor, which is 26 feet by 41 feet. That cabin is still firmly embedded in the walls, invisible to the eye. A 13-foot by 18-foot extension at the rear of the house used to be a garage. Bergh told me the slight width of the garage indicated it may pre-date the 1937 construction.

The 10-foot by 19-foot room to the west under the curved sloping roof was part of the 1937 construction, and originally had a floor that canted away from the house. Bergh thinks that perhaps it was originally a covered side porch, another element typical of Tudor Revival houses.

According to the book, Fairbanks, A Historic Building Survey, Mrs. Patty is supposed to have designed and planted the native species garden that still surrounds the house. The Patty’s new home was featured in a 1937 issue of House Beautiful magazine.

The Pattys only lived in the house until 1943 when they moved to Seattle. It was then occupied by Essie Dale. A year after she died in 1965, Ralph and Kathryn LaSalle bought the house.
The LaSalle’s daughter, Laura, and her husband, Eric Bergh, bought the house in 1999. They have been gradually restoring it, so it should remain a testament to Fairbanks coming-of-age for many years.

  • Conversations with Eric and Laura Bergh, current owners
  • Fairbanks, A City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
  • “Fairbanks Classic; the Patty House.” in Tanana-Yukon Historical Society Newsletter. Vol. 4, No. 4, April 1999
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  • North Country Challenge. Ernest Patty. D. McKay Company. 1969

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A modern Alaska artist helps preserve Chitina history

Spirit Mountain Artworks (old tin shop) in the 1990s

Emil Goulet moved to Alaska in 1931 looking for work. He stopped in Chitina on his travels, and in his book, Rugged Years on the Alaska Frontier, wrote of taking “an immediate liking to the little village which nestles in a deep valley. ... The mountainsides were covered with spruce and birch. In the center of town was a small, almost round lake. ... In addition to the drug store and post office, there was a general store, clothing store, depot and roundhouse, two hotels, federal jail, a small one-room school house, government road commission buildings, and a few scattered small homes.” He wrote later that Chitina also boasted electricity and a water system.

The builders of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad (CR&NW) established Chitina in 1910 as a junction on the way to the copper mines up the Chitina River. The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail (also called the Richardson Trail) was only 40 miles to the northwest, and developers had visions of those Chitina River tracks being only a branch line, with the main line running from Chitina up the Copper River Valley and on to the Yukon River.

Indeed, according to Lone Janson’s book, The Copper Spike, an Alaska Railroad Commission appointed by President Taft recommended extension of the CR&NW Railroad from Chitina to Fairbanks as a better choice than the alternative Seward-to-Fairbanks route. Political considerations, however, meant that the dreamed-of extension never materialized.

So Chitina made-do with the “Edgerton Cut-off,” a road extension connecting Chitina with the Richardson. The Edgerton was completed by the time the CR&NW reached Chitina in 1910, and most passenger and freight traffic headed out of Valdez for the Copper River Basin and Fairbanks began bypassing the section of the Richardson over Thompson Pass. Stage lines that had run between Fairbanks and Valdez quickly dropped Valdez from their route, shifting to Chitina as their southern terminus.

Chitina quickly became the commercial and governmental center of the Copper River Valley. The Alaska Road Commission (ARC) even made the town its district headquarters.

The town’s glory days lasted until 1938, when the Kennicott mines closed and the CR&NW ceased operations. Chitina didn’t become a ghost town overnight, though. According to U.S. Census reports, the town’s population in 1930 was 116. In 1940, two years after the railroad’s demise, it was 176. By 1950, Chitina’s population had declined to 92, and by 1960 only 31 people resided there.

One of the first permanent buildings in Chitina was Fred Shaupp’s tin shop. Fred came to Alaska during the gold rush period, first setting up shop in Nome, then Fairbanks and then Chitina. According to National Register of Historic Places documents, he erected the tall, narrow wood-frame building over his tent in 1910.

The original shop was a two-story structure, 17 feet by 33 feet, with 12-foot ceilings on the first floor (Fred evidently needed plenty of work space) and rough wood siding. About the time the railroad was abandoned, a 15-foot two-story extension was added at the rear. A new basement was dug utilizing rails salvaged from the railroad as footings for the foundation, and the entire building was resheathed with milled siding pulled from derelict railroad buildings.

Over the years, the tin shop itself became a derelict and was in danger of collapsing until artist Art Koeninger rescued it in 1978. Koeninger purchased the building with thoughts of salvaging some of the lumber to build a cabin. He quickly decided to restore it instead. 

With grants from the State of Alaska,  Art and a crew of volunteers rebuilt the structure. Their first job was putting in a new foundation (Art told me that it was quite a feat extracting the old rails buried underneath the building). They restored the exterior to its original appearance, but gutted the interior, essentially building a modern, energy-efficient structure inside the old shell. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979

The building’s first floor now houses an art gallery, Spirit Mountain Artworks (named for a prominent peak south of town), and Koeninger’s workshop, with a residence on the second floor. It is one of only three original buildings left on Main Street in Chitina.


  • Art Koeninger interview with Bill Schneider and Dave Krupa. University of Alaska Oral History Collection. 10-22-1993

  • Conversation with Art Koeninger, current building owner of building. 2015

  • “Real Art Thrives in the Shadow of Spirit Mountain.” Mike Dunham. in Anchorage Daily News. 5-32-1996

  •  Rugged Years on the Alaska Frontier. Emil Oliver Goulet. Dorrance & Company. 1949

  •  The Copper Spike. Lone E. Janson. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1975

  • U.S. Census reports for 1930, 1940, 1950 & 1960

Saturday, December 12, 2015

December sunset in Fairbanks from West Ridge - UAF

I just happened to be up on campus at about 2:30 this afternoon. Can you believe that this photo was taken only four hours after my sunrise photo?

December dawn in Fairbanks from Wendell Street bridge

I took this photo at about 10:30 this morning. Temperature was about 0 degrees F.