"Who knew Fairbanks was so fabulous! " Michelle
Anesthesiologist Randy McGregor and his wife, Leeann Ferlito, arrived in Fairbanks to house hunt 30 years ago and knew they wanted something interesting. What they didn’t realize was that they’d end up buying a piece of art.
“We had four days to find a house,” Ferlito said. “I wanted to sacrifice a little bit of energy for daylight because we came here in January and I could see that … I couldn’t see. We walked in that door and said ‘Oh my! This is what we’re looking for.’ It just was wonderful.”
The timber-framed house was designed and built in 1980 by Fairbanks-bred sculptor Mark Fejes. Using local white spruce, imported Douglas fir and cedar siding, the house has 12-inch insulated walls and a ventilated 18-inch fiberglass roof. Stepping through the stained glass accented front door, you’re met with an expansive view of light, wooded property, the city of Fairbanks glittering down below and the Alaska Range off in the distance. The house has a number of custom built-ins, rough-hewn beams, a sauna, hot tub and loft-like master bedroom overlooking the main floor open living area.
“Some people build houses, I wanted to build sculptures in the woods,” said Fejes, who has designed and built several houses in the area. “The (original) client was a transplanted surfer and thought the roof-line was an image of breaking surf and he called it the wave house. It was three saddle-curved shapes with common edges and not at all suitable for a house, but I had a potential client that appreciated the art.”
Ask around about modern architecture in Fairbanks and you’ll be met with as many opinions as there are styles. The answers commingle design aesthetic and materiality with a desire to respond to the environment, the necessity of meeting the needs and wants of the client, the challenge of building in a place that is remote and home to a harsh climate, the responsibility of making the structure heating efficient and the hope that these buildings will help create a sense of place.
“Fairbanks has many buildings to point to to show its interest in creating a new northern architecture — from public buildings to residential,” said Julie Decker, chief curator at the Anchorage Museum and author of a number of books on northern architecture.
Fairbanks does have a small, amicable and familiar group of men and women who are responsible for the slow but steady outcropping of thoughtfully designed modern and contemporary structures sprinkled around town. Some visit each other’s projects and others participate in the monthly lecture series presented by the Alaska Design Forum, a non-profit statewide organization of architects, artists and designers formed to broaden the range of discussion of the design of the built environment.
“We don’t all have a common vision but there’s a sort of group thinking of how to build here,” said David Hayden, owner of L64 Design and Alaska Design Forum board member. “It’s a big language that everyone draws from and pulls out what they can use in their area. Variety makes a place rich. It’s like everyone’s interpretation of the space.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when sensibilities began shifting from the more traditional cottage and log cabin aesthetic to something a bit more imaginative. “Fairbanks was a frontier town with serious climatic and economic challenges,” Fejes said. “These disadvantages had, I thought, successfully eliminated nearly all of the joy from Alaskan architecture.”
Commercially, a lot of credit goes to Charles “C.B.” Bettisworth, whose firm, Bettisworth North, is responsible for the Fairbanks International Airport, the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center and the Birch Hill Ski Building, among others.
In her book “Modern North,” Decker notes that Bettisworth “began to forge ahead with architectural styles that were modern and aesthetic as well as meeting the functional needs of the site and client.”
An equally important contribution has been Bettisworth’s knack for attracting fresh talent to Fairbanks.
“I have always been a believer in a collaborative design process, where we are always asking the ‘what if’ questions,” Bettisworth said. “This approach gives everyone in the firm the opportunity to have input into the process. I think that these priorities have attracted exceptional talent to the firm, and these folks, being creative people, have then gone out on their own and to my mind are now providing an additional pool of exceptional talent actively engaged in making Fairbanks a better place to live and work.”
“We’re dying for color here in the middle of winter. Enough of beige and Tahoe blue!”
Bettisworth protégé Hayden is bored with beige, abhors vinyl siding and hates the easy way out. His own house, located on the edge of downtown Fairbanks, is a testament to that.
“This house pushed things pretty far in terms of materials,” he said. “Corrugated metal in Fairbanks (when Hayden’s house was built in 2000) was a special order… Somebody yelled at me in Fred Meyer, ‘How dare you paint that house red!’”
That red, incidentally, was a custom color mixed by Fairbanks artist David Mollett.
“When I built it, people were pissed off. Now people think it’s a remodel,” Hayden continued. “It’s like a dagger to the heart when I hear that.”
Hayden got a chance to expand things even further when he designed a home for Ryan and Sabrina Binkley.
“The Binkley house pushed me in another direction in terms of style and materials,” he recalled. “They were trying to do something that was different and that you don’t ever see in Fairbanks.”
Located on the Chena River, within a mile of the rest of his family, Binkley’s home is a modern industrial house constructed of black steel, yellow cedar, concrete and lots of windows.
“It’s really funny because we go down the river and it’s ‘log cabin, log cabin, vinyl siding house, regular house, regular house’ and then boom! This big square boxy looking thing and nobody really knows what to make of it,” Binkley said.
The Binkleys designed the house with an eye toward the converted industrial factory spaces they encountered while attending engineering school outside of Denver.
“We like the idea of reusing something that was a former industrial space as residential space and we wanted a place like that … We wanted the type of materials that were very tactile and you could touch and feel and they mean something.”
Despite the potential heft of materials, the open interior floor plan creates a breezy yet homey feel and yellow cedar creates a welcoming exterior. It is that sort of intent that Binkley feels may be missing in some of the other homes around town.
“Instead of using vinyl siding because it’s cheap and easy to get up here and it works for the winter, is there something else you could do — like a natural wood — that would be just as cheap but would make you feel better about living in it?” he said. “I think thoughtfulness is the most important thing.”
Architect Patty Peirsol, another Bettisworth alum, is equally concerned with purposefulness.
“You don’t need to have glass everywhere. You just need to know where it should be,” she said. “I’ve been in some older cabins and the windows are placed just perfectly. Like a painting. You’re looking at their birch trees in their yard and it’s fabulous.”
Patty’s home and office is located on the industrial Davis Street corridor below Airport Way. The exterior is simple and gray. The space is filled with found objects, sculpture, fiber art, curved bits of bark, a small beehive attached to a stick, letters of commendation and photos of the gold dredge she owns out in Chatanika. While the interior space reflects the curation of a collected life, it belies what she sums up as her primary design aesthetic: simple lines. It also speaks to the touch of whimsy contained within her designs, many of which are described as towers with bridges and one of which includes a roof deck feature to enable the homeowner to practice his bagpipes among the treetops.
Peirsol feels that through architecture she can help make things better while giving people what they want.
“I always claim that good architecture doesn’t have to cost any more than bad architecture,” she said. “When you’re driving up to your house or walking up to your house or your office building or whatever, it should make you happy. No matter what design it is.”