I had the good fortune a couple of Fridays ago (Dec. 12) to shop at Samson Hardware on what was certainly its last day in its current location, and what may be its last day ever. I witnessed the end of 104 years of Fairbanks history.
My visit there was entirely accidental: I needed something super-powerful to de-clog my drains, and Samson’s had some in stock. But what a happy accident! When I walked in just before five o’clock, someone was taking a group photo of the employees. The staff were bantering happily with each other and with the customers, and groups of customers were chatting among themselves. Food and drink were out on one of the counters, free for the taking. Everybody seemed relaxed and festive.
As most of you (in Fairbanks) know, the building Samson’s occupies is slated for demolition. It is being displaced by the “Illinois Street Project“, a decades-old plan to extend Illinois street through the property, build a bridge across the Chena River, and connect with Barnette Street, turning the route from College Road (at the north end of Illinois) to Airport Road into a pretty strait shot.
A reader e-mailed me to ask what I thought of the Samson’s closure and demolition. The short answer is: I don’t know. I have mixed feelings.
Let me start with this: my visit to Samson’s was not actually accidental. Yes, it was an accident of timing that the drains clogged when they did. But Samson’s was my neighborhood hardware store. After hopping off the bus on the way home, I was able to walk there in about three minutes (discounting my long wait for a break in traffic to cross Illinois). The walk home took just over ten minutes — and, as I’ve probably said before, ten minutes is as far as the average person is willing to walk before deciding to drive or not to go at all. Since I moved downtown five years ago, Samson’s was always, always, always my first choice for hardware.
That said, it was not always the best choice. Too often, Samson’s didn’t have what I was looking for — and I don’t consider myself someone with extravagant needs. Perhaps it’s that I was often looking for things with some aesthetic component, while Samson’s was not a hardware store that focused much on the aesthetic. As one friend described it, stepping into Samson’s was like stepping into the past: besides carrying builder’s hardware, it sold trapping gear, wood stoves, and washboards. Its housewares seemed dedicated to those living off the grid: no toaster ovens or Kitchen Aid mixers, but plenty of cast iron cookware and lamp oil. It sometimes lacked things like key blanks for my imported car model or curtain rods to match the ones already in my house. For these, I often had to trudge on to the Ace Hardware / OK Lumber shop — or hop a bus to AIH or one of the national box-store hardware chains.
It’s ironic that the best hardware stores for those of more urban sensibility are now located on Fairbanks’s periphery, while (until recently) the best place to supply yourself for backwoods living was in the center of town.
The building itself, frankly, was no great shakes. It appeared to have been built entirely of cinder blocks, whose shape was echoed in the architecture of the building itself: rectangular and boring. It seems like an earlier era’s version of today’s big-box store. This makes me a little un-persuaded by the “historical preservation” argument against demolition. It’s true that the store has been in that location for almost all the history of Fairbanks — but does the building really represent the architecture of 1904 (or some other period when it was renovated)? My own feeling is that the Samson’s building is neither beautiful (being a cinder block rectangle) nor useful (representing no particular period’s architecture) — so there’s little reason to want to preserve it.
I think that many of us from western states are inclined to think of a hundred years as a long time — thus, any building managing to stand that long must be historical and worthy of preservation. Let’s keep in mind the absolute blink of an eye that a hundred years is in the life of a town. When we start talking about demolishing our history, let’s recall that we’ve only barely begun to write that history. A hundred years is not so much that we’ll have a hard time surpassing our architecture and civic design to date.
Still, I don’t care in principle for the demolition of buildings — especially ones housing useful enterprises — for the sake of new streets. While part of me is excited for the Illinois Street extension and the Barnette Street bridge, and the (anticipated) new ease with which people will be able to come downtown, it disheartens me that this is seen as the way to do it.
I know that the Vision Fairbanks plan provides for increased housing density downtown, and mixing people’s living with their shopping is one way (my favorite) for a commercial area to prosper. But I would also like to see a major investment by the local, state, and federal governments in public transit — may I dream about light rail? — so that parking downtown would be unnecessary and undesirable in order to spend time there. I would rather see our old buildings renovated and beautified than see them torn down so that motorized traffic can pass more swiftly. And I would rather see our city center so full of useful, interesting, and beautiful places that the ease of speeding through in a car was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
The clerk who sold me the drain de-clogger told me that they had hopes to re-build on the land just behind their current location — which will be untouched by the Illinois Street Project. I share that hope. Samson’s is a Fairbanks institution, and a useful one. Having more useful businesses will only make downtown Fairbanks an easier, more exciting place to live.