Oil, Porn, and more Oil; the Story of Adaptive Reuse in Anchorage

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I'm back from my trip and reading to forge ahead with more—albeit snarky—criticism of Anchorage architecture.

Let's talk about adaptive reuse. This is a scary, if not overly technical term for the uninitiated. Never fear: it only means to take something old and give it a new use. Specifically, the term applies to buildings in an attempt to rebrand "historic preservation". It allows advocates such as me to avoid using those stuffy words; adaptive reuse sounds more progressive and is a little more descriptive of what is actually taking place. To be sure, there was a time when historic preservation was elitist and protectionist—and some still feel that is is—but that time is (should be) over. Today, the speculation and monetary value of a property dissuades—thankfully—the push for as-is preservation or worse, replication. The fact is, adaptive reuse makes money whereas historic preservation makes museums.

My stance on replication differs from most historic preservationists because I, like Ruskin, believe replication is a sin. Additionally, to attempt to make additions to a building, including siding and windows, contextual is furtive. Unless someone can find the exact manufacturer, stone quarry, mill, forest, or riverbed, the new elements will differ from the old—they will look new! Furthermore, new uses—the point of adaptive reuse—will not be contextual. An Art Deco post office can become a makerspace, even though those didn't exist in the 1920s. Or a theater—not to mention any specific one—is somewhat passé. It is time for something new. Move on from matching windows, forms, and materials, and never pull a Le Duc and invent a new hybrid style. If it is new, be bold and let it show.

As you may have gathered, adaptive reuse is renovating an existing building for a new use. Schools become hotels, warehouses become offices, theaters become schools. Anchorage has some history with adaptive reuse. There was a time, not too long ago, when we reused old buildings instead of demolishing them, or included them in new buildings with similar uses. The examples I want to talk about are the Polaris School and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, or as any sensible person calls it, the Performing Arts Center.

Way back in the pioneering days of 1971, a new movie theater, one of the first with multiple screens in Anchorage, was built at the intersection of the new Seward Highway and Dowling Road. Called Polar I&II, this multiplex features prominently in many long-time Anchorageites' memories, for better or for worse. Some remember standing in line for the 1977 cult film Star Wars, whereas others remember relieving some (sexual) tension at a showing of a steamy adult film in the late 1980s. In 1982, the theater added a third screen, to try to boost attendance, but ultimately the business failed. In 1995, the Anchorage School District acquired the cinema and opened Polaris Alternative School, a K–12 optional school. Teachers held classes in relocatables while the theater underwent renovation (and cleaning). Although a 2005 remodel demolished the third theater and added much-needed classroom space to the East, the original Polar remains intact, if reused.

Farther back in history, to the absolutely dark days of 1930, a high school was built on Block 52 of Downtown Anchorage. The founders had reserved the block for a school site, and the first, the Pioneer School—now a civic center and event space, having been moved and reused at least twice since its construction; then the creatively named "second school" occupied the block, a handsome Neo-Classical building. In 1938, a three-level concrete grade school replaced the "second school", and the two structures remained intact until 1988. Around 1940, an auditorium and gym were built flanking the high school. After East Anchorage High School opened in 1961, the school changed into a community center, with the gym and auditorium still in use. For a while, the auditorium was called the Anchorage Municipal Auditorium, but it eventually became the Sidney Laurence Auditorium. It was the site of the first oil lease in Prudhoe Bay in 1969. Until 1988, it and the old high school served the community with other uses. The grade school became the City Hall Annex. The construction of the PAC demolished the high school, the gym, and grade school, but the building incorporated the Sidney Laurence, now a "theater".

In the latter case, the city honored and respected the history and significance of the auditorium. It was not a beautiful structure and its interior was rather dull, but it held captive the memories of many locals. The Municipality is now drafting an Historic Preservation Plan ordinance that will set forth actions and recommendations for adaptive reuse of historic— both the banal and beautiful— structures. Perhaps we as a community can end the wholesale demolition and redevelopment that defined the last twenty years of our history and remember the lessons of the early times. Construction is expensive in this state; we might as well take advantage of what we already have. Another aspect of this Plan is the advocating for the maintenance of existing affordable housing units, cheaply built during the Oil Boom of the 1970s and '80s. These buildings have fallen into disrepair, but their structures are still sound. More importantly, the cultural histories surrounding them are rich. The Plan will outline and suggest methods for incentivizing improvement of the buildings over redevelopment. These are not just buildings; these are repositories of human life, love, and history. We must value this history and not have developmental speculation seduce us into maximizing profit. I have seen what that does to a city, in Portland. I want Anchorage to remain home for not just the super-rich, but those committed to the land and community.

Keep the faith and good night, my loves. Next week, fire stations.

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