Two years ago today, Fairbanks lost an important part of its history.
The Masonic Temple at 809 First Ave., which stood for 112 years, was one of the community’s most recognizable structures.
But two years ago heavy snow collapsed a portion of the building’s roof. City officials determined the structure was a pubic safety hazard and 10 hours later, the entire building was reduced to a pile of rubble. All that remained were memories of its Renaissance Revival-style facade, of the presidential speech that took place there, as well as years of meetings and social dances.
“The loss of this building was a blow to our community’s history and identity,” said Molly Proue, who chairs the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s Historic Preservation Commission. “We call attention to it today not only to commemorate its history and mourn its loss, but also to call attention to the importance of historic preservation and working to preserve what structures remain.”
She pointed out that the community is currently rallying behind preservation of the SS Nenana, a National Historic Landmark located in Pioneer Park. A group called Friends of the SS Nenana spearheads that effort.
The Masonic Temple was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places as of 1980, due to its architectural significance (as part of the Renaissance Revival movement) and due to the role that local fraternal organizations, such as the Masons, played in the development of the city of Fairbanks in the early part of the 20th century.
The structure was built in 1906 by the Tanana Commercial Company. Beginning in 1908 the building served as a Masonic meeting hall after the Masonic Lodge purchased the building and made improvements. The building was one of the few early buildings in Fairbanks still in its original location. The great fire of 1906 spread west only as far as Barnette Street, one block away.
According to Patricia Schmidt, who shared a brief history of the temple after its demolition, “the Masonic Temple had social and humanitarian significance because the Masons long played an important role in the development of the Fairbanks community. The fraternal organization regularly contributed to needy families. They showed concern for children who required special medical facilities, and they maintained a special blood bank at the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. The masons traditionally keep their contributions anonymous.”
And that presidential address? President Warren Harding delivered it from the front steps of the temple in 1923.
When it was demolished, the building was owned by local businessman Harold Groetsema. The plan had been to turn the building, which was unoccupied and used for storage, into a banquet hall. But that was pending structural repairs to everything from the foundation to the roof.
According to preservationist Molly Proue, interviewed after the demolition two years ago, the Masonic Temple was one of the more popular of the 200-plus structures on the local historic building inventory.
“I feel like, out of all of the buildings, people seemed to really like that one,” she said. “I think because of it’s distinctive architecture and its place on the river.”
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.