Fairbanks hosts final gathering to remember Polaris Building

a building
The Polaris Building and machinery that will soon help tear it down. (Dan Bross/KUAC)

Demolition of Fairbanks’ tallest building is scheduled to get underway this spring. The community gathered Friday outside the Polaris Building to commemorate the iconic high-rise’s past, and look to the future.

Local historian Joanie Skilbred summarized the life of the Polaris for a crowd that gathered before the 72-year-old concrete high-rise. Skilbred explained that when it opened in 1952, the Polaris was the crown jewel of a downtown Fairbanks urban renewal effort, with 144 apartments and a range of commercial offerings.

“Over the years, there were several restaurants, bars, public and private offices, meeting spaces, radio and TV transmitters, all located in the building,” Skilbred said. “It also served the Fairbanks community as the official Cold War fallout shelter. There was even a private detective office in there.”

The Polaris building was the town center according to City Mayor David Pruhs, who highlighted the building’s role in Fairbanks growth and identity over the decades.

“So many families, so many businesses, so much activity started here,” Pruhs said. “Everyone has a Polaris story, be it inside or just walking by it — everyone has a Polaris story.”

The living story of the Polaris ground to a halt in 2001, when operating as a seasonal hotel, frozen pipes resulted in severe flood damage that closed the building for good, leaving it to become an iconic eyesore. Pruhs leads a city group that spent years securing ownership of the decaying Polaris and looking for funding for its demolition. He credited many people for making it happen.

“You know, sometimes it takes a village,” he said.

Pruhs shared the podium Friday with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who secured $10 million from the Environmental Protection Agency for the Polaris demolition project. Murkowski underscored that the building had a good life.

“But as with everything, there’s a time and this building’s time was 20 years ago, and so in the interim it’s been nothing but a blight,” she said.

Murkowski described its upcoming removal, which will open a prime downtown lot, as an opportunity to dream big.

“To give that Golden Heart new life, this is what today is all about.”

Murkowski symbolically launched the project by breaking a bottle of champagne on side of the Polaris.

Lisa Murkowski
Sen. Lisa Murkowski breaks a bottle of champagne on the Polaris. She said the building had a good run. (Dan Bross/KUAC)

Polaris demolition actually began last summer with the removal of a one-story addition known as the annex, and pre-demo work on the main tower including clearing its interior, and removal of asbestos is nearing completion, which will be followed by the building’s deconstruction.

City engineer Bob Pristash explained that the structure’s walls are coated with paint containing PCBs, and will be carefully cut into pieces.

“So, they’ll start taking it down and see how it goes and in pieces and then lowering it down with the crane,” Pristash said. “And then when it gets far enough down, they can start using their high reach excavator to start pulling pieces down.”

Pristash said water will be used to minimize dust.

“It’s a mist. It isn’t like a fire hose or anything, it’s just enough to keep it moist, so it’s not any runoff,” he said.

The plan had been to ship the concrete to a special hazardous waste landfill in Idaho, but Pristash says an alternate approach is being considered.

“They might take the chunks of the concrete down and try to remove the PCB from the concrete off-site,” he said.

The Polaris demolition contract with Coldfoot Engineering requires the building to be down by the end of October. The City of Fairbanks plans to consider private proposals for redevelopment of the site.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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