Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Northward Building still stands out in downtown Fairbanks

The Northward Building in 2014

 In 1950 Fairbanks, Alaska was still a modest little town of small frame houses and log cabins. The city’s business district, fronting on the Chena River, pretty much fit in a three block by four block area, and the tallest building was the four-story Lathrop Building on Second Avenue, built by Austin “Cap” Lathrop in 1939. (It was also the second building in Fairbanks to have an elevator—the first being the Federal Building on Cushman Street.)

1950 was also the year that one of the largest construction projects in the city up to that time was started. The eight-story Northward Building is credited with being the first apartment house in Fairbanks. It was designed in part to alleviate the city’s acute housing shortage, caused by the influx of workers involved in military construction, and of military personnel and their families moving into the area.

(Just a few years later the 11-story Hill Building, now the Polaris Building, opened two blocks away. It too, was an apartment building constructed to ease the city’s housing crisis.)

The Northward Building which is 97.5 feet high, is a roughly H-shaped structure that takes up the entire block between Lacey and Noble Streets, and Third and Fourth Avenue. In 1950 that location was at the very edge of downtown, and several smaller buildings, including boarding houses, were torn down to make room for the new “high rise.”

As constructed, the building had a steel frame with reinforced concrete floors, and was clad with metal siding. When opened in 1952 it included a basement with parking, laundry and storage areas; a first floor with retail shops (including grocery store) and a bank; and seven floors of apartments. It was also the third building in Fairbanks with an elevator.

A 1953 ad in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner noted that the rent for an apartment was $135 a month, including all utilities. That may have been a hefty sum in the 50s, but the Northward Building, which was essentially a self-contained community, was worth it to many.

Edna Ferber, who patterned the central building in her 1958 book, “Ice Palace,” after the Northward Building, wrote (perhaps exaggerating just a tad bit) that “It was Alaska’s first apartment house. People fought to live in it. Townsmen, dwelling in their frame houses and wrestling with the regional problems of heating, lighting, plumbing, water, were madly envious of Ice Palace tenants. There never was a vacancy unless a tenant accommodatingly died, rashly built a new house, or left permanently for Outside.”

Ferber’s novel, written on the cusp of Alaska statehood, immortalized the Northward as her Ice Palace. Fairbanks became the Interior Alaska city of Baranof, and almost everything she wrote about the city and its people became larger-than-life. The Ice Palace grew from the Northward Building’s eight-stories to fourteen-stories, its utilitarian steel siding replace by glass blocks that at times, “when the refraction was just right…took on an unearthly blue like the aquamarine tint of the vast Morganstern glacier that lay, a giant jewel, just outside Baranof.”

According to the 1978 book, Ferber, a Biography, the author made five trips to Alaska conducting research. She became very familiar with the territory and its inhabitants. In addition to “borrowing” settings, she also borrowed real-life people, again—building them into larger-than-life characters for her book. Eva McGown became the novel’s Bridie Ballantyne—her social ministry transferred from the Nordale Hotel to the Ice Palace, and Cap Lathrop morphed into the powerful Czar Kennedy.

The city’s downtown has grown considerably beyond the Northward Building in the past 60+ years, but the building has changed little. The exterior still looks the same, but the interior was renovated in 2001. Almost all the first-floor shops are gone, replaced by offices for various States agencies, but the upper floors are still devoted to apartments and utilities are still included in the rent.

  • Ice Palace. Edna Ferber. Buccaneer Books. 1958 
  • Buildings of Alaska. Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
  • Ferber, a Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle. Julie Goldsmith Gilbert. Doubleday and Company. 1978
  • Fairbanks, a Pictorial History. Claus-M. Naske & Ludwig J. Rowinski. Donning Company. 1981


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! I love to read and learn about Fairbanks' history so I can share it with guests when they visit. Thank you!