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.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

City of Dust on Duke City Fix

I wanted to break into our regularly scheduled programming for a moment to mention that I was recently invited to contribute to Duke City Fix, a website exploring all things Albuquerque. My first piece several weeks ago was a re-working (read: shortening) of an epic post I did in early 2010 on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Rail Yards, by far my favorite place to photograph in the city. I followed that up with a companion piece on the WHEELS Museum, a great repository of rail and transportation history and the only actual tenant at the rail yards. My third article, a recounting of a Sunday morning stroll down a battered yet still enthralling Route 66, was published ten days ago. I'm kicking ideas around for the next bit. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

The content of these can be a little different than what I do here, but you’ll still recognize the, uh, aesthetic, I think. If you’re interested in reading more, just follow the links in the text above (2020 UPDATE: Links are long dead). The WHEELS piece features the finest picture of an antique milk truck that I've ever taken. I’d like to thank Duke City Fix for the opportunity. I’m honored to be involved.

The next post will be a one-off stop in Alaska to take a look at a bit of entrepreneurial failure. Seriously.