Saturday, September 28, 2013

Frozen in Time: The Igloo City Hotel, Alaska

It’s seems like it’s been a very long time since I’ve done a proper post, but I guess it’s only been a month. In that time I’ve been conducting experiments in exhaustion. I like to do this from time to time even though the results are always the same: Days begin to feel like lifetimes, I become very forgetful, and then I get sick. So, here I sit with a cup of a homeopathic Thera-Flu-like drink that will probably have me nodding off at the keyboard while I try to remember where I was in late-July, which might as well have been the 1980’s for how recent it feels now.

Anyway, occasionally City of Dust likes to head further out on the road than usual. Over the past few years we’ve been to Hungary, Germany, and Cambodia. While Alaska might not sound quite as exotic to a North American, it sure feels pretty exotic when you’re there. Sort of like living in Jurassic Park but instead of dinosaurs you get eaten by grizzly bears or trampled by moose and go crazy because the sun never sets. While lots of buildings look derelict, I didn’t find much that was truly abandoned to explore. Probably because the cruel winter destroys anything that’s not regularly tended, unlike out here in the desert. For a while I thought the only thing I might have to report on was the over-the-top level of public intoxication I witnessed in Fairbanks. But then I found an abandoned igloo.

Large enough to be seen from planes at 30,000 feet, the Igloo City Hotel, conceived as a tribute to the Inuit people and built by a man named Leon Smith, was clearly a beautiful idea. Four stories tall and made of concrete--not ice--with a lovely mountain backdrop, the only flaw in the plan might’ve been building the place 180 miles from Anchorage and almost the same distance from Fairbanks. In fact, it’s way out there on the George Parks Highway, 20 miles from Cantwell (pop. 222), the nearest town. While there is a relatively constant (for Alaska) stream of traffic traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks, staying at this hotel would’ve put you in proximity to the now-also-abandoned gas station across the parking lot and not much else in the way of civilization.

The structure was never close to being completed and the interior is just bare ribs made of hundreds of 2” x 4”’s, which I couldn’t see during my visit because there was nothing but darkness when I poked my head through a loose board. Mr. Smith apparently violated building codes by making the windows too small, started to run out of money, and then was hit by rising fuel costs even before the business itself had a chance of failing. But beyond the tiny windows the structure must’ve been otherwise well-built; the Igloo City Hotel was begun in the 1970’s and has now survived, vacant and exposed, for possibly over 40 Alaskan winters.

Of course, one man’s dream is…another man’s dream, also, and the Igloo City Hotel was sold a few times only to end up back in Smith’s hands after buyers missed their payments. Before dying, Smith, in failing health and concerned for his wife’s future, finally sold the property to Brad Fisher of Fisher’s Fuel Inc., who didn't actually want it. After Smith accepted his lowball offer, Fisher remembers thinking, "Oh no, that's not really what I wanted to happen!"

Fisher did end up operating the gas station and some adjacent cabins while trying to renovate the hotel, but finally ran out of money himself in the early 2000’s. The gas station and cabins were shuttered in 2005. Mr. Fisher now also has Igloo City, the old gas station, and the surrounding 38 acres up for bid, but will only sell to someone serious about completing the decades-old project.

Hopefully, an enterprising individual will buy the place and give it another chance. Word is that most locals consider it something of a landmark and someday I’d sure like to spend a night in Igloo City. I'd probably need the rest.

The full story of Leon Smith and his vision of an igloo-shaped hotel in the Alaskan wilderness may forever go untold. But most of the basics have been repeated on several websites that have featured Igloo City, although there are some errors that have proliferated. The best source on the history of the hotel is a STORY from earlier this year in the Alaska Dispatch, which features the quote from Mr. Fisher used above. If you’d like to see the wooden inside of the igloo, Kuriositas has a nice collection of shots.


David Pike said...

Very cool. So it never saw any guests?

jmhouse said...

Nope. It was the exact opposite of the Hotel California.

Anonymous said...

What nobody seems to mention is that the windows are small because, in order to get all those stories in, the floors are spaced too close together for a normal (5'9") person to stand up, which is another code violation. Might make a good Hobbit Hotel, however. Nobody I know has ever claimed there aren't enough Hobbits traveling the Parks Hwy. to make a hotel for them a poor investment.

jmhouse said...

That's very interesting indeed, Anonymous! I would apparently be unable to stand up in the place. Huh.

On the other hand, not only would I never claim there aren't enough Hobbits traveling the Parks Highway, I would say that the area seems rather well-suited to Hobbits. Surely a developer will realize that and start building again soon.

Thanks for that important and not-widely-known tidbit! JM

Doug Sterling said...

Just to see if you were exaggerating, I tried finding the hotel by starting at Cantwell on the map and just running along the roads until I found something. You were right; although the satellite imagery of Alaska isn't particularly clear, I was, in fact, able to spot it myself with the map zoomed out to a 1in:1mi ratio. Pretty cool!

A few articles from 2013 were suggesting the building was about to undergo restoration, but I haven't been able to confirm this anywhere, or heard of the project since.

Also, your comment about the hotel being "the exact opposite of the Hotel California" made me chuckle.

Christopher Smith said...

I'm actually the great grandson of Leon Smith. My grandfather being Leon J. Smith. It's nice to find out more about a small part of my great-grandfathers "Legacy". I have a small book on this place but it doesn't actually give a lot of detail aside from "Look, there's a real igloo in Alaska!". I appreciate the writers work on this piece and the comedic relief was nice.

Unfortunately Leon passed before I was born. I did spend little time with his son, Leon J, my grandfather, when i was a baby. However they both (Constance, his wife and my Grandmother) recently died a few years back. I was never very close to them and being young, didn't realize how one day they would be gone. If anyone has extra information on the igloo's current state feel free to email me.

My email is
Thank you.
Christopher Smith (Great-Grandson)

jmhouse said...

Thanks very much for your comment, Christopher Smith. It's great to hear from Leon J. Smith's great-grandson! I'm also impressed that you have a small book on the Igloo City Hotel. I had no idea such a thing even existed.

As for the hotel's current state, I visited in summer 2013, shortly before I wrote the blog post. So, what you see is how things looked then. I can't say for sure what the condition is now, but I bet it's close to what I saw. Pictures from the last several years all seem to show the igloo in about that same state with any variation mostly being in the graffiti. But perhaps someone with more up-to-date knowledge will fill us in soon.

Thanks again! JM

claudia c said...

Ok. This will sound very, very dumb...but. how do I get there? I ll go Anchorage - Fairbanks and I don't want to miss it. do I make any turns? I really, really want to see it!

jmhouse said...

Hi claudia c,

I highly recommend a stop at Igloo City. If you're driving from Anchorage to Fairbanks on Highway 3 then you will easily see it. No turns required! It's about 15-20 miles south of Cantwell. You should find its location marked on this map:,-150.0703002,9z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0xd1186d6a6cf73308

Enjoy your trip and perhaps give us an update on the place if you get a chance! JM

Nuke'um said...

This is where we used to fuel up for gas when I was in the Army. We would convoy humvees between Ft. Richardson and Ft. Wainwright, and we would stop here. Also, planes could land on the highway and refuel. This was in the early 90s. It was a perfect break point.

jmhouse said...

That's interesting, Nuke'um! Did they supply fuel for the planes right from the Igloo or was that brought by the convoy?

Thanks for your comment! JM