City volunteers to renovate Fairbanks' City Hall

Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2010

FAIRBANKS - The labyrinth of narrow staircases, corridors, false floors and dead ends at the City Hall in Fairbanks might become even more twisty as members of the city administration begin a project to restore the 78-year-old building to its original floor plan.

Sam Harrel / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Sam Harrel / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

"We'd like to replicate the original layout," said Fairbanks Mayor Jerry Cleworth, who attended second grade in the late 50s and junior high in the mid-60s at the former public school, known as Old Main. "Everything focuses on the maze. If you ruin that, then the uniqueness of the building disappears."

Cleworth, city building inspector Steve Shuttleworth and city property manager Pat Smith, who all went to junior high school at Old Main, are leading a grassroots effort to return the building to its original floor plan. They will contribute their own time, labor and money to reopen sections that have been blocked and restore the building's classic flow, Cleworth said.

"We'll pay as we can go, unless we can get a grant," he said.

The project is like piecing together a puzzle without a picture to refer to.

"We think this wall was added, because when I went to shop class here we didn't have this little alcove," Cleworth said as he gave the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner a tour of the building.

There is mystery about what is hidden behind the many locked doors (one contained the city seal), mid-level floors and stairs that disappear into walls. The original coal-fired boilers, twin red and blue monsters, still sit idle in the old mechanical room. The school endured decades of history as polio and flu epidemics struck Fairbanks, students and alumni went to fight in World War II and the oil boom brought more than 1,000 new students in the 1970s. The building contains this history and serves as a touchstone for those who visit and work there today.

"This was the principal's office," Cleworth said, pointing to his mayoral office.

The City Council chambers occupy the former library, the old shop class is a maintenance room, the break room was his mother's old geography classroom and the projection room that once offered public movies is the circuit room.

The city administrative services moved into Old Main in 1993, after the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District moved out and returned ownership to the city. The three-story concrete structure was built in 1932, one of the city's first icons of Art Deco design, demonstrated by its large bay windows and long concrete piers. The original building cost $150,000 and included students in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to a book about the building by Chris Allan. The meandering floor plan became more confusing when it received a big south-side addition in 1939 and another expansive northern wing in 1948.

As the city's population grew and more schools opened, it switched to junior high-only in 1959 and closed as a public school in 1976. Old Main continued to house the school district administration as well as correspondence and alternative high school programs, but it hit a rough patch in the 1980s. It was too big and expensive to heat for its occupants; the mechanical and electrical systems were outdated and asbestos was discovered in the basement, according to Allan. The borough floated a couple of bond issues asking for between $2 million and $11 million to revitalize the building, but they continually failed.

When the school district moved into its current administration building on Fifth Avenue, city employees prompted by Cleworth, then-city engineer Rufus Bunch and others opted to take over Old Main. Engineers repaired the water damage and failing electric systems, and city employees helped remodel and paint the building.

"We did it all with no bond," Cleworth said.

Sixteen years later, they are back at it still with no bond.

The first project will reopen the bleachers next to the gym, which were boarded up for security and turned into storage space when the city first moved in (doors will provide enough security, Cleworth said). The city rents space to several tenants, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tanana Valley and a martial arts club.

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