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

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