Alaska Building a downtown fixture for more than 60 years



by Al Currier
    For sixty years, 1909-1969, the busy downtown Bellingham intersection of Holly and State streets was home to the curved-fronted, three-story Alaska Building. Home to numerous businesses and professional offices during its lifetime, the classic brick was part of a surge in construction resulting from the 1903 consolidation of Whatcom and Fairhaven to form the city of Bellingham.

The Alaska Building, in all its glory, with its distinct curved facade.

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As the central business district developed in the 1890s and early 1900s it became clear that the corner of State and Holly would become a prime commercial location. With an eye on the potential of this intersection, downtown investor and developer Charles F. Roehl purchased the southwest corner, across State Street from today’s YMCA, for $50,000 at the end of 1904.
    Roehl, with his brother William, had constructed a two-story brick building, known as the Roehl Block, in the 1200 block of Cornwall, between Holly and Chestnut. The Roehl Block was eventually torn down and replaced by the Leopold Hotel, which today is The Leopold Retirement Community. The Roehls’ also owned several other properties, including the ornate Lighthouse Building at the corner of Cornwall and Holly.
    One of the early businesses attracted to the intersection of State and Holly was Engberg’s Drug Store, which had been founded by pharmacist Henry C. Engberg in Fairhaven in 1890. Engberg moved his store to Roehl’s property in 1905, and would become a long-time tenant of the prized location.
    Roehl, however, had further plans for his corner. In March of 1906, he announced plans for the construction of a large new commercial building on the site. Initial plans projected a six-story building that would cost $150,000 to construct. Addition of a seventh story was a possibility. Roehl’s announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by the newspaper Reveille, which declared the building would make the new Bellingham into a “first class city.”
    Construction on Roehl’s new building began in the fall of 1908, two years following his ambitious announcement. Designed by local architect Frank C. Burns, the structure was reduced from original hopes to three stories, plus basement, costing only $40,000. Burns also designed several other commercial structures in the city, including the Daylight Building, the Mason Block and the Hamilton Block. Of these, only the Daylight Building at the northwest corner of State and Chestnut remains.
    Burns’ design for Roehl’s building featured a distinctive curved front that reflected the path of the streetcar tracks swinging around the corner of State and Holly, providing a flowing streamline appearance. Impressive pillars dominated the building’s main entrance on Holly Street. The interior of the building was designed for commercial use on the main floor, and offices and smaller businesses in the upper stories. In the top floor, a center cluster of rooms had no exterior doors or windows, and was lit by skylights.
    Roehl announced, in October 1908, that the new structure would be named The Alaska Building, in recognition of one of its primary tenants, the Alaska Loan & Investment Company.
    While the Alaska Building was under construction, Engberg’s Drug Store moved to a temporary location three blocks west on Holly Street at the intersection of Commercial.
    When completed in 1909, the Alaska Building offered its tenants a modern and elegant venue and with the city’s business climate improving, space was quickly occupied. Engberg’s Drug Store returned, moving into the valued corner section of the building, with an interior now furnished with polished brass fixtures, chandeliers, and a soda fountain of marble and German silver.
    Upstairs, the Alaska Building housed a number of physicians’ offices, which almost guaranteed a good level of business for the pharmacy. Engberg’s continued in business until 1927, when it was purchased by John and Charles Graham, owners of two Owl pharmacies. Renamed Star Drugs by the Grahams, the store became a fixture in downtown Bellingham and was managed for many years by John’s pharmacist son, George Graham.
    Economic prosperity following World War I brought about a proposal in early 1922 for $60,000 worth of improvements to the Alaska Building, including the addition of two stories, to result in a more modern office building. The remodel, however, never happened and the building retained its original form.
    By 1926, the Alaska Building had become a familiar sight at the corner of State and Holly. Engberg’s Pharmacy, which also offered a number of photographic services, ruled the ground floor, accompanied by a branch of Panatorium Dye Works of Seattle.
    In addition to professional offices, the upper floors were home to several commercial enterprises. The financial service tradition begun with the Alaska Loan & Investment Company was carried on by Cash Credit, which offered payday loans, and Whatcom County Merchant’s Credit Association. Lessons in piano, stringed instruments, and voice were available at the Bellingham School of Music, directed by Minnie Clark. The Northwestern Fur Shop could provide the latest in fashion.
    From the 1930s through the 1950s, the Alaska Building continued to busily serve Bellingham residents, becoming a landmark of the city’s central business district. By the 1960s, the top floor had been remodeled into apartments, keeping the center cluster of rooms with no exterior access, while the second floor was mostly offices and storage space. Retail businesses including Star Surgical Supply, successor to Engberg’s and Star Drugs, occupied the ground floor.
    A tragic ending came for the classic Alaska Building on Saturday, June 14, 1969, when flames swept through the structure, claiming the lives of two residents. The fire alarm was sounded at 6:30 a.m., and flames quickly engulfed the 60-year-old building, raging out of control for five hours. The city fire department’s full forces responded to fight the spectacular blaze from which fire fighters rescued nine persons, including an 88-year-old man removed by ladder. Two people who lived in the center apartments on the top floor were trapped by the lack of exits and perished in the fire.
    The Alaska Building’s ground floor businesses, which included The Iron Bull Tavern, Mac & Mac Sewing Center, Star Surgical Supply, Franz Gabl’s Ski Shop and House of Provias men’s clothing store all suffered complete losses. Also destroyed was the Robert Burns men’s clothing store’s inventory, which was stored in the basement. The total financial loss in the fire was estimated at $500,000. Bedding ignited by a cigarette was determined to be the fire’s cause.
    Following the fire, which completely destroyed the Alaska Building, its site remained vacant for 10 years. In 1979, Bellingham National Bank opened a large drive-through facility at the building’s former location across State Street from the YMCA at the corner of Holly. Now Key Bank, the facility’s financial activity is a reminder of the investment Charles Roehl made in downtown Bellingham with his Alaska Building of 1909.

 

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