Polaris Building: The road to demolishing a Fairbanks landmark

Published: Apr. 30, 2023 at 10:47 AM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - It was once a symbol of modernity in the downtown heart of Fairbanks.

Now, 71 years after its triumphant debut, and after decades of neglect, the Polaris Building’s demolition is imminent.

David Pruhs, Mayor of the City of Fairbanks, said of the building, “It was a community within the City of Fairbanks.”

“We would have liked to have saved it, but it’s just time for us to give it a fond farewell,” he added, saying, “We looked at rehabilitation. It was not available. You could not rehabilitate this.”

In 1952, the Polaris Building, then known as the Hill Building opened in downtown Fairbanks.

At more than 100 feet in height, it towered over the area, the tallest building in the city.

When it opened, the Polaris housed apartments throughout. “They had businesses in there. They had a gym downstairs, beauty supply, accounting offices, a restaurant on the main floor,” said Pruhs.

That decade, delegates to the state’s Constitutional Convention at the University of Alaska Fairbanks were housed there during the proceedings. According to Pruhs, “It’s had a wonderful history of people who have lived there. My parents lived there when they first got married.”

Over a period of more than 40 years, the tower underwent numerous changes, as businesses came and went.

During the late 1960s, the building began to be used as a hotel, with a restaurant called the Petroleum Club added on the top floor in the 1970s.

This was replaced by the Tiki Cove later that same decade. “That was always the signature restaurant in town with the views. You had north, south, east, west on the 11th floor of the Polaris Building,” Pruhs said.

The annex came along in 1972, the Mayor explained. “That put on more features, another restaurant and a bar in there.”

The late 90s saw financial throes hit the building as new owners came along with different ideas. Pruhs said the building “was abandoned in 2001, and hasn’t been operated since.”

Much was left behind, from chairs and tables to newspapers and menus. A microphone stand still adorns the stage at the Tiki Cove, with the windows broken and some boarded and the furniture in disarray.

Eventually, the Polaris Building was recognized as a health hazard. “This building was condemned by the City of Fairbanks in August of 2012,” according to Pruhs.

Multiple hazards plague the building, from asbestos to structural issues.

According to City Engineer Robert Pristash, “It wasn’t built according to modern earthquake codes, so if we had enough of an earthquake, it may not fall down, but it would tweak it enough where it would make it really difficult to take it down then because it would be weakened.”

These dangers prompted citizens from around the community to work for its demolition. Pruhs said, “There just comes a time where you have to get it knocked down, and the Polaris working group, which I chaired for seven years, we started it seven years ago.”

Costs proved the largest obstacle, with Pruhs explaining, “We estimated the original cost was going to be 8 to 10 million dollars, and the City of Fairbanks doesn’t have that in the coffers.”

Finally, in 2021, the city received a sign of hope from Senator Lisa Murkowski. “I said ‘Senator Murkowski, I’ve been working on this now for six years. Please retire me. Please retire me. Just retire me,’ and she laughed and she said, ‘David, I think we both need to retire from this project,’” Mayor Pruhs recalled.

Ultimately the funding for the project came from a legislative appropriation through the Environmental Protection Agency. In March of 2022, this funding was finalized.

City engineers then developed a plan for deconstructing the building.

Now, work has begun deconstructing the annex, which lies just south of the tower.

To mark the occasion, the city held a going-away get-together, offering people the chance to see the inside of the annex and the tower. “Everyone should have a last-time look at this building,” Pruhs said.

Nearby businesses will experience some impact from the project, specifically the Beer Garden at Lavelle’s Taphouse, which shares a wall with the annex, but according to Pruhs, “We’re very cognizant of how we bid the demolition of the tower to make sure minimal impact happens to those businesses next to the building. We’ve been in contact with them. They know what we’re doing. They know how we’re doing it. During the deconstruction of the annex, we have construction easements.”

The deconstruction of the tower itself is planned to start in spring of 2024, with the empty space which held the annex serving as a staging area.

According to Pruhs, the tower will come down “stick by stick. We’re not blowing anything up.”

The toxic materials, including polychlorinated biphenyls, will then present another challenge, Pristash explained.

“That’s going to have to be shipped out of state, because no landfill in Alaska can take PCB,” he said.

The goal is for the annex to be completely demolished by May 7th, and over the summer, the tower will undergo what is known as abatement. This process involved removing as much asbestos as possible from the structure.

During the summer, Pruhs plans to make the space where the annex was available for food trucks, he said. “I don’t want to have this become a parking lot. We’re going to have business activity on this as much as we can during the summer months.