Out of the ashes: a downtown eyesore is transformed

In 2004, an awning patch-job went bad and led to a fire that razed a historic commercial building in the heart of downtown Juneau, where the grand opening of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Building will happen Friday.

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Haida artist Robert Davidson's metal panel "Greatest Echo" adorns the front of the Walter Soboleff building in Juneau. Photo: Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO
Haida artist Robert Davidson’s metal panel “Greatest Echo” adorns the front of the Walter Soboleff building in Juneau. Photo: Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO

In its 108-year history, the two-story, wood-framed building at the corner of Front and Seward streets had gone by many names: The C.W. Young Building, Rusher’s Hardware, the Skinner Building, the Endicott Building and the Town Center Mall.

Opening ceremonies for the Walter Soboleff Building begin Friday at 8:30 a.m. The grand opening ceremony will be broadcast live on 360 North.

Oke and Robert Rodman were keeping shop at Percy’s Liquor across the street that Sunday afternoon in August 2004. They saw a couple of guys on top of the awning working with tar and a torch.

“I knew it’s bad idea.”

“Well, once they started running around looking for a fire extinguisher, it seemed like a bad day,” recalls Rich Etheridge, who was Juneau’s acting fire chief  at the time.

When he arrived, he saw smoke rising from one corner of the building, but no open flames. The fire was burning inside the walls.

We sent crews in with chainsaws and axes to cut through walls to get to the fire. But they’d cut through one wall, then they’d find another wall, then layers of plywood to another wall, and so they couldn’t get to the spots where things were burning.

Because of the old construction, and things that had been added on, what happens is the smoke travels through all those void spaces, and the smoke actually ignites.

With a firefighting crew inside, the building filled with smoke floor to ceiling.

“And smoke explodes also. We had a smoke explosion. It was like a low volume explosion. It was more like a big ‘woof.'”

Fortunately, he says there were no serious injuries.

“It was a big, big wave of relief after they called back in on the radio, said they were fine.”

Etheridge put a crew on the roof, hoping to cut a hole in it to let the heat and smoke escape instead of spreading through the building. But that plan was foiled by multiple roofs, layered on over the years.

Meanwhile, the windless, dry weather kept much of the smoke at street level.

He says downtown Juneau reminded him that day of eerie scenes in New York City on 9/11… “…with just that real thick haze in the air and nobody in the streets? That’s kind of what it looked like.”

He shut down and evacuated several downtown blocks, and the cruise ships left early.

Hand tools weren’t cutting it. And it still wasn’t clear where the fire was in the building.

“There wasn’t a lot of active, open flame that you could see, it was just lots and lots of smoke, and all the flames were concealed where it was real difficult.”

So Etheridge brought in an excavator to peel the walls down and keep the fire from spreading to other buildings.

By the next morning, just about every firefighter in town had worked the blaze. When the smoke cleared, the second story was gone. Rubble from the 18 businesses that occupied the building was all over the streets.

By December that year, the site had been cleared, debris with asbestos in it had been scooped out to below street level, and a new eyesore was taking shape.

“Town hole: Prime lot sits idle since 2004 fire,” was the headline in the Juneau Empire 18 months later. Another two years passed. The headlines in 2008 were “The hole in the heart of downtown” and “Juneau’s biggest ashtray.”

Candice Bressler moved to Juneau in 2009.

“So when I arrived, it was already ‘the pit,'” she remembers. “It was filled with anything from beer cans to cigarette butts to old newspapers. A lot of things.”

In early 2010, Bressler and other United Way volunteers started a public advocacy campaign for a solution. They started a Facebook page called “Fix the Pit.” Almost overnight, it drew hundreds of fans.

About that same time, city officials threatened the lot’s owners with a six-figure lawsuit, not because of the eyesore, but because the pit was literally undermining the city’s surrounding sidewalks, curbs and streets.

Before it went to court, Sealaska Corp. stepped in paid $800,000 for the 9,500 square-foot lot, which is across the street from its headquarters. Sealaska filled the pit and addressed the city’s issues. When temporary landscaping went in, Bressler declared the pit fixed.

It’s been more than 10 years since the fire, and Sealaska Heritage Institute’s new cultural center is just opening at the corner of Front and Seward streets.

“I think it’s sad that such an eyesore existed for so long. And I think it’s sad that millions of tourists got to walk past it over the years and see, basically, what people called the ground zero of Juneau.”

But… she adds: “Just looking at this magnificent building. Just, it’s so spectacular to look at. And just to see that it’s filled! With beauty and with development and with culture. So exciting.”

Just down the street in another prime downtown spot, the husk of the Gastineau Apartments still stands since a 2012 fire. If the recovery timelines parallel, it’ll be about 2023 before something new opens its doors there.