FAIRBANKS — One of the most iconic buildings along the Fairbanks riverfront, the 112-year-old Masonic Temple at 809 First Ave., was demolished this past March 17 after a portion of the roof collapsed. So died a unique piece of Alaska history dating back to the founding of Fairbanks.
Fraternal organizations were popular in Alaska’s fledgling towns. The Arctic Brotherhood, Eagles, Elks, Freemasons, Moose and Odd Fellows were all represented. According to the 1921 edition of “Mackey’s History of Freemasonry,” by the 1920s seven chartered Masonic lodges existed in Alaska. Freemasonry arrived in Fairbanks soon after the city’s founding, and although the local chapter (Tanana Lodge) did not receive its charter until 1908, the men who started the lodge were active Masons before the local chapter was officially recognized.
National Register of Historic Places documents state that the building that became the Freemasons’ home was constructed in 1906 as the Tanana Commercial Company store. Two years later the Masonic Lodge purchased the structure. The Masons added a basement and constructed an extension to the rear and a second story.
In 1916, the lodge undertook a major renovation and a pressed metal façade was installed over the front of the building, giving it a Renaissance Revival appearance. (Renaissance Revival is an architectural style inspired by various classical Italian styles.)
Pressed metal ornamentation and facades were extremely popular during the early 1900s, and there were thousands of buildings across the U.S. and Canada with pressed metal exteriors. The facades were a quick and inexpensive way to add style to otherwise plain buildings. Pressed metal could mimic brick, stone and concrete, as well as intricate floral and other decorative motifs.
Old catalogs indicate that a metal façade for the Masonic temple would have cost about $665 (plus shipping) in 1916. The inflation-adjusted price today would be about $16,000.
Some buildings in Skagway, Juneau and other Alaska towns have pressed metal decorative elements such a cornices and windows, but as far as I know, this Fairbanks building was the only structure in Alaska with an entirely-metal front façade. (Dawson City’s Masonic Temple also has a pressed metal façade.)
The Masonic Temple was one of the civic centers in early Fairbanks, and numerous community events were held there. When President Warren Harding visited Fairbanks in 1923, he addressed city residents from the front steps of the Temple.
Local Masons were justly proud of the building, and the temple was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
However, the cost to bring it up to modern building codes eventually became too expensive for the lodge, and the Masons decided to sell the building. Local businessman Harold Groetsema (former owner of Big Daddy’s BarB-Q across the street) purchased the building in 2009 with the hope of turning the first floor into a banquet hall.
Harold told me that after beginning renovations he uncovered some interesting architectural details. For instance, ceiling sprinklers had been installed in the main hall and a suspended ceiling put in to hide the pipes. Tearing into the ceiling he discovered the original pressed metal ceiling tiles still in place. Unfortunately, Harold also found the cost of renovating and bring the building up to code to be cost-prohibitive. For the past decade the building sat mostly vacant, used only for storage.
Inadequately engineered from the start, it succumbed to old age and this year’s heavy snows. Its demise perhaps was inevitable, but it is a shame that the front façade was not salvaged so that the structure could be rebuilt. Only the pediment atop the building, inscribed with the words “Masonic Temple,” and the date “1906,” survived.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
• “A short history of Freemasonry in the Yukon”, Jacques Boily. Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon website. 2002
• “Buildings of Alaska.” Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
• Conversation with Harold Groetsema, current owner of old Masonic Temple property
• “Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey.” Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
• “Fairbanks Masonic Temple, National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form.” James R. Marcotte. National Park Service. 1979
• “Geo. L. Mesker & Co. Architectural Iron Works Catalog.” University of Houston Digital Library. C 1915
• Historic Masonic Temple total loss after roof caves in.” Robin Wood. In “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.” 3-18-2018
• “Mackey’s History of Freemasonry.” Albert G. Mackey. Masonic History Company. 1921