For half a century, a tall, white, wooden windmill dotted with colorful lights has peered down at Spenard.
It got its start advertising a liquor store called the Kut Rate Kid. Later, the windmill was moved to its current vantage point at the corner of the Chilkoot Charlie's parking lot. Over the years, the Spenard windmill has become a landmark in a young city without many.
Now, Bob Gillam, an Anchorage financier known as the wealthiest man in Alaska, wants to buy the Spenard windmill and move it to his family's compound on Lake Clark, according to Chilkoot Charlie's owner Mike Gordon. Gillam's father Byron Gillam built the windmill and the structure holds sentimental value to the family, Gordon said in a phone interview recently. No deal has been inked yet.
"He made me an offer. I've got somebody looking into it," Gordon said.
In the 1970s, Spenard was known as a rowdy red light district, dotted with massage parlors and bars, proud of its sleaze. Recent decades have brought an eclectic, more family-friendly renaissance. Today, the Spenard windmill looks out on a shop selling fancy cupcakes, as well as an East African restaurant and an upstart tattoo studio. The windmill has become ground zero for this new iteration of Spenard. A farmers market, and a Thursday "food truck carnival" are advertised as being held "under the windmill." The structure appears on tote bags and T-shirts.
"The windmill has character," Gordon said. "Which Spenard has in abundance. But not as much as it used to."
If you think about it, a windmill in the middle of Spenard is pretty random, said Mariko Churchill, the manager of Sugarspoon, a dessert and coffee shop that's right next door.
"There's no good reason to have a windmill here, and that's very Spenard. I mean it's not like they are functionally using it for wind power. But it is fun and funky and colorful, and that's also very Spenard."
Whatever happens, Spenard won't be without a windmill, Gordon said.
Gordon says that if Gillam ends up buying the windmill, he'll build a replica that looks just the same. Gordon thinks a replacement would cost roughly $40,000. He might opt for metal over wood this time.
"If I can get one that looks like the current one and has fewer maintenance issues, I'm happy to do it," he said. "It's a win-win for the community and Bob."
Gillam, the founder of Anchorage investment firm McKinley Capital Management, has been known in recent years for using some of his fortune to fund opposition of the proposed Pebble mine, which would be constructed about 30 miles from his home on Lake Clark.
Calls to Gillam for this story were not returned.
Mark Butler, the co-founder of the Spenard Farmers' Market, says he doesn't think the windmill would lose its icon status if it were replaced with a new, metal structure. The neighborhood has been reinventing itself for decades.
"Spenard is a very changeable location," Butler said.
Like many things Spenard, the windmill has a lively back story.
It starts with Byron Gillam, an Anchorage businessman who, starting in the late 1950s, opened a fabled Fireweed Lane liquor store called the Kut Rate Kid, known for its bargain prices. As the story goes, he was driving on a California freeway at night when he glimpsed a lit-up windmill, found it beautiful and decided to construct one of his own.
The windmill sat in front of the Kut Rate Kid until a new owner took over in 1980, the business closed and the property went into bankruptcy, Gordon wrote in a windmill history published recently on Alaska Public Media.
Enter another Anchorage character, Michael "Mafia Mike" Von Gnatensky, who owned a chain of pizza restaurants, appeared in TV commercials wearing a fedora and once ran for mayor.
"Mafia Mike" bought the structure with dreams of using it as a landmark for new pizza restaurant. But then the economy tanked and he wanted the windmill off his hands. Gordon wrote that he agreed to move the windmill to his parking lot and erect a plaque saying the structure was "donated to Spenard by Mafia Mike." The plaque has long since disappeared.
The windmill has been parked in the corner of the Chilkoot Charlie's parking lot since the 1980s. A chain-link fence topped by barbed wire was erected to keep climbers off.
Windmills aren't easy to maintain, according to Gordon. The lights have almost never worked at the same time the motor that turns the spokes is operational.
"It's a lot of trouble," he said. "I love it though. I'm not sad that I bought it."
On the rare occasions that everything is working at once, it's "like witnessing a miracle," he said.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at email@example.com or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS