Local History

One August day in 1901, Felix Pedro, an Italian immigrant from Fanano, Italy (See Sister Cities), was searching for gold in the hills of the Tanana Valley, and he spotted the smoke of a steam boat unloading on the banks of the Chena River. Hoping to purchase supplies, he headed in the direction of the boat.

Meanwhile, Mr. E.T. Barnette had argued with the captain of the riverboat on which he was traveling. He had hired the captain to take him up the Tanana River to the present day site of Tanacross. However, the Tanana River could not be passed and the Chena River also proved too shallow. So, the captain had put Barnette and his large stock of trade goods ashore near the present site of First Avenue and Cushman in August of 1901.

E.T. Barnette was quite disgruntled with the prospect of establishing his trading post so far from the existing gold fields. He had left the area to re-supply, and when he returned in 1902, Felix Pedro had found gold in the area in July of that year. Barnette changed his mind. He figured money could be made with gold fields this close.

Mr. Barnette, strong in personality, convinced early settlers to name Fairbanks in honor of Charles W. Fairbanks, an Indiana senator. Charles Fairbanks later became the Vice President of the United States under Theodore Roosevelt.

On November 10, 1903, an election was held to decide whether Fairbanks should be incorporated. The residents believed that Fairbanks was sufficiently established and that they should be given the responsibility to provide for their own daily community functions. By a 75% majority vote, Fairbanks was incorporated on November 10, 1903. At the same election, the people also chose a mayor, council members, and school board members.

E.T. Barnette became the first Mayor of the City of Fairbanks.

Since the gold rush era of the early 1900’s, the City of Fairbanks has continued to grow and prosper. Today Fairbanks, Alaska, is a popular tourist destination offering a mix of its gold-rush era mystique, as well as the unparalleled natural beauty of Mount Mckinley and the Alaskan countryside.

City Hall History

Download “the Spirit of Old Main, A History of the Main School (1932 – 1995)” by Chris Allan.
NOTE: This is a large PDF file (47MB). Please right click the link and select “Save Target As…”

On December 4, 1932, Fairbanks’ only school, a wooden structure, burned to the ground, leaving 340 school age children without a place to attend school. Two weeks after the fire, temporary classrooms were established at the Moose Hall, the American Legion Hall, and Eagles Hall. At times, when more space was necessary, school was also held at the Masonic Temple and the Presbyterian Church. This “temporary” arrangement lasted for 15 months, although discussions and proposals for a new school began immediately after the fire.

Many in the community felt there was a need for a larger school and that building a fire-resistant structure was important. Joseph Boyer and Walter Kuban proposed the development of a three-story, reinforced concrete school, with an estimated cost of $127,000. Their proposed building would have accommodated 400-500 students.

The City Council approved a $100,000 bond proposal for the construction of the school; however, on March 13, 1933, the bond proposal failed when it was taken before the voters. The City Council proposed a second bond in the amount of $98,000; the voters passed it on April 15, 1933. This $98,000, added to the $50,000 insurance money on the first school, put the financing of a new school in place.

In May, 1933, William McDonald Construction Company of St. Louis, with the low bid of $117,836, won the building contract for the new school. The company began construction of the new building on the site of the original school. An Art Deco style was chosen, following the design of the recently completed Federal Building in Fairbanks.

The original Main School building had 33 rooms, a large basement, and a 4,000 square foot gymnasium — the largest gym in the state! In 1934, it was the most modern school facility in the Territory of Alaska.

Main School was opened on January 22, 1934, with 16 teachers and 318 students. By 1939, the school was overflowing, and the City added a 12,350 square foot wing on the building’s south side. Then, in 1948, after expanding the boundaries of the School District, Main School found itself again cramped for space. A new wing was added onto the north side of the building. With the south and north additions to the original school, the floor plan became very irregular — so much so that the building became maze-like. The local police even used the building for tactical exercises because of its perplexing side hallways.

As the Fairbanks student population began to grow, new schools were built. Students were distributed among the newer schools, and by 1955 Main School became Main Elementary School, housing kindergartners through eighth graders. Then in 1959, the kindergarten through six grades moved out, and Main Elementary became known as Main Junior High School.

During the height of the economic boom caused by the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, many new schools were built due to the influx of students into the community and the free-flow of dollars. As a result, in 1976 Main School closed its doors as a public school and became the home of the administration offices of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. It also housed the Fairbanks Correspondence School in the north wing, and then the Fairbanks Alternative High School in the fall of 1977 until 1989.

As early as 1972, Main School began to have serious problems: its heating bills were exorbitant; the mechanical and electrical systems were obsolete; its confusing configuration violated fire and handicapped access codes; and later asbestos was found. The voters consistently opposed approving the expenditure of money to revitalize the old structure.

On September 27, 1990, Main School was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Although federal tax credits became available to renovate the old school after it was added to the historic places register, it was by that time too little, too late. In 1992 it was on the list of the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation’s “Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties.”

In 1993, the School District Offices moved out of the building. Main School was boarded up and the heat turned off — an unfortunate event that resulted in significant water and frost damage. Then, in December 1994, several City offices moved into the building. Basic renovation was done in some rooms and hallways, by City employees on their own time, and Main School began the transformation into City Hall.
On September 9, 1995, a reception honoring the dedication of the Charles W. Fairbanks Sculpture and the Rededication of Historic Main School as Fairbanks City Hall was held. On January 8, 1996, the Mayor and City Council proudly held their first meeting in the newly completed Council Chambers.

City Hall now houses the City Mayor’s Office, the City Clerk’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office, the Building Department, the Engineering Department, the Finance Department, the Personnel Department, and City Council Chambers. The Fairbanks Youth Center (also known as The Boys and Girls Club) occupies part of the building. Fairbanks Youth Court moved into one of the empty offices in April of 1997. Fairbanks Amateur Boxing Club set up residence in July of 1998. This club is headed by Bill Fairbanks, a boxing instructor and role model who specializes in helping disadvantaged youth through leadership, discipline, and physical fitness. The Fairbanks Coalition for Community-Oriented Policing is currently setting up an office in the rear of the building. David Leone is the Executive Chair. Partnered with the City of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks Police Department, their mission is to promote community-oriented policing and problem-solving, recognizing that law enforcement cannot do their job without the help and input from the community.

The Fairbanks City Council passed Resolution 3651 on April 5, 1996, which accepted the conceptual design for the renovation of City Hall. The City’s present goal is to completely restore and renovate the original old school, giving her a much needed facelift.

  • Information for this webpage was gathered from Chris Allan’s report, “The Spirit of Old Main — A History of the Main School (1932-1995).” Copies of this complete study can be purchased in the City Clerk’s Office for $2.00.
  • Or download a copy of this report:
    “The Spirit of Old Main” [PDF Format | 47.2 MB]

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