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Fairbanks' empty, decaying Polaris Building looking for love

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Posted: Sunday, April 24, 2011 9:25 am | Updated: 12:46 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - It’s been empty and decaying for years, but the Polaris Building is looking for love again in a very vocal way.

On April 15, a giant banner rested against the west face of the tallest building in downtown Fairbanks.

It read, in bold typography, “Looking For Love Again.”

Each year the Alaska Design Forum hosts a series of lectures that focuses on design. But this year the group was challenged by the National Endowment for the Arts, who provides part of the funding, to do something outside of a lecture.

The project, sponsored by both the NEA and the forum, decided to go with a statewide project that got people thinking about the common spaces they share.

The Fairbanks project is arguably the largest and most visible of the five projects commissioned across the state. In Juneau, a giant snow-globe capable of fitting people inside was created. Homer residents made a video time capsule. In Nome, a moveable feast was cooked based on what people had in their freezers. Anchorage built an extralarge quilt, covering volunteers who collectively could recreate different Southcentral topography.

While the other projects have run their course, the Polaris banner still hangs. Coordinators hope it will remain as long as weather and technical factors allow.

Selecting the Polaris

David Hayden, Alaska Design Forum board member and local architect, wanted to explore how words and word presentation can influence public discussion. He found graphic and urban designer Candy Chang, a former New York Times graphic designer who focuses on public art projects in struggling communities.

Chang, who is based out of New Orleans, initially wanted to do something with an abandoned store front, but Hayden felt that wouldn’t be too visible in a community like Fairbanks.

He wanted to find something that Fairbanksans held common. When another board member suggested the Polaris Building, he knew they had found their subject.

“Oh my god, why not?” he said. “For years I’ve been hearing how to save it. That is perfect. Random people tell me their dreams for it.”

The Polaris was built in 1952. It was, and is, the tallest building in Fairbanks. It opened as an 11-story apartment building, the first high-rise in Fairbanks, and during the 1970s housed scores of pipeline workers. It was later turned into the Northern Lights Hotel and was home to both the Tiki Cove and Black Angus restaurants.

But those went out of business more than a decade ago.

Now the Polaris sits closed.

In 2001, 800,000 gallons of water flooded the basement. The bottom floor is boarded up, but windows on the top remain open. White curtains still hang in the windows. Paint is chipping off the lower awnings, and several glass light domes are missing.

The inside is worse. Black mold has crept into many of the walls, as has dust and dirt. Graffiti mars the surfaces. Carpets of moss an inch thick blanket some floors. Broken plates and telephones are scattered about.

“It’s like someone had a huge party,” Hayden said.

Candy Chang’s influence

“What if people had better services and resources to do what they wanted to do with their community?” Chang asked at public lecture on the project April 12. “So we could make our neighborhood more ours.”

That idea is the overarching theme of most of Chang’s works.

She has degrees in both graphic design and urban planning and uses the two to inspire thought in communities.

In a December 2010 project launched in New Orleans she handed out stickers designed like name tags. But instead of “Hello, my name is...” they say “I wish this was...” Chang handed them out throughout her neighborhood and asked people to stick them on buildings or objects and write their desire for that object.

People stuck them on crumbling roads asking that they be properly paved and on empty store fronts hoping for a farmer’s market or an ice cream parlor.

With the Polaris Building she was interested in the stories behind it, so she incorporated two elements into the project. One part is the banner, the second is two chalkboards at the building’s base. One of those chalkboards asks for Polaris Building memories, the other for hopes.

She did a similar project with a blighted house in New Orleans where she asked people to reminisce on the idea of “Before I Die” and asked people to fill in their answers on chalkboards on a house that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Chang said the Polaris Building banner serves as an emotional beacon, pleading for love for the building from its community. She chose the words because of the strong reaction it evokes.

“It’s like it’s weeping,” she said, staring up at the then-recently unveiled banner from the corner of Second Avenue and Lacey Street.

Making the past present

For Marc Marlow, 1952 stands out. The Anchorage-based developer first heard about the Polaris Building sometime in the early 1990s. He was in the process of purchasing the blighted McKay Building in Anchorage and learned that the two buildings were built in the same year.

The McKay Building, from about 1982 forward, was in the same position as the Polaris — derelict, decaying and an eyesore for the city. Marlow renamed it the McKinley building and converted into an apartment complex using government backed loans and tax credits.

He hopes to do the same with the Polaris Building, which he purchased in early 2009 after years of going back and forth on the sale details.

Marlow plans to turn the Polaris into a mixed-use building, with office and retail space on the ground and top levels and apartments in the floors in between. He is still working on securing the funding to begin the project. A structural study is also in the works.

At first, when the group at Design Alaska suggested the project, he was a little bewildered. But after discussing how the project would work, he understood and accepted it wholeheartedly.

“I support anything to call attention to the building in its present condition and engendering an attitude in wanting to see a revitalization,” he said.

Hopes and dreams

There are, generally, two perspectives on what to do with the Polaris Building — rebuild it or bomb it. During the official unveiling April 15, community members gathered on First Avenue, admiring the banner and recollecting past memories. People argued over the quality of the Tiki Cove Chinese food but agreed that the red velvet wall coverings and water fountains were “classy kitsch.”

Chang admitted that the project is one big experiment. She hopes that it ultimately inspires people to be proactive about what they want to see in their community.

“You can only do so much with a chalkboard,” she said.

Memories shared on the chalkboards and website (http://lookingforloveagain. org) linger between the real and the absurd. There were multiple ghost references in between memories of drinks at the Tiki Cove.

Patty Peirsol didn’t remember the food so much as the view. It was a classy place for Fairbanks.

“Anyone who was anyone went to the Tiki Cove,” she said.

The hopes are as real and absurd as the memories. Some people want affordable housing, others an Indian restaurant. At least one person asked for a Ninja training center.

“Tear the whole block and build a multy(sic) level mall with a sky walk to the top floor of the parking garage,” says an anonymous post on the website. “It is time to clean up downtown and clear out the eyesore that is the Polaris Building...”

Hayden sees valid arguments for either a remodel or a demolition.

But ultimately, one thing is clear.

“Movement forward on anything is better than nothing,” he said.

“Its been sitting there for 10 years.

Let’s get something moving forward.”

Contact features writer Suzanna Caldwell at 459-7504.

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