A moment 15 years in the making: The old Northern Lights Inn is coming down

A powered shear on treads began tearing down the skeleton of the old Northern Lights Inn in Midtown on Thursday, seen by many as one of Anchorage's worst eyesores.

By the early evening, a scrap metal pile lay in a giant heap next to what's left of the former hotel, its steel beams scrubbed of asbestos. The remaining two-thirds of the inn, a fixture along a busy Midtown thoroughfare, is expected to be torn down by noon Friday, said demolition foreman Trent Burbank.

"It'll be a scrap heap," said James Gray, the city fire inspector.

The hotel opened in 1965 as the Gold Rush Motor Lodge. It was rebuilt in 1970 after an arson fire killed five guests, and then it closed for good in 2002. It's been a target of graffiti and break-ins. Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz last year called it "a blight on this part of Anchorage."

In a parking lot in front of the hotel on Benson Boulevard, longtime Anchorage residents gathered to relish a day they never thought would come.

"I hate this hotel," said Cynthia Harkness, who watched the demolition from the front seat of her car for the better part of an hour. "It's such an eyesore for Anchorage."

[The Northern Lights Hotel, moldering in Midtown] 

Harkness works in a glass building to the east. She said she's been watching progress of the demolition with her co-workers. She's come by every day to check on it.

"I didn't know today was the day or I would have been here all morning," Harkness said. "I would have called in sick."

Clint Chase noticed the demolition work on a bike ride from his neighborhood of Mountain View. He stood on the grassy side of the parking lot in his bike helmet, marveling at the power of the machine shearing the steel beams away.

He was just glad to see the building go, he said. He hoped something good would go in its place.

John Turner heard the noise from the demolition from his home to the south. He drove over in his roofless green Jeep and pulled up to the construction fence.

"It's just been a big waste of space forever," said Turner, who said he's lived in Anchorage about 20 years. "Plus I think homeless people were in it a lot."

Last September, city inspectors served a search warrant and found fire rings, makeshift bedding and other evidence of squatters in the building. The ensuing demands to fix the barricades and repair the water, heat and fire alarm systems led to an agreement between the city and the current owners, who also own the shuttered 4th Avenue Theatre in downtown Anchorage.

If the hotel came down by December 2017, the city agreed not to impose fines for building and fire code violations.

James Gray, the city fire inspector, said May was the original deadline for demolition. But crews kept encountering asbestos and other hazardous materials, Gray said. It all had to be disposed of carefully.

"The crews have been working full tilt the past six months," Gray said. "Every bit had to be scraped by hands with water and fans. That was a massive effort."

Joe Ovel, who lives near West High School, was circling the building Thursday with a camera on a tripod. He'd recorded some photos and aerial footage over the past seven months to document the demolition.

Ovel said he wouldn't call the hotel Anchorage's worst eyesore. It was more like a time capsule, he said. The remnants of a once-successful business. He wondered what went wrong.

Shortly before 5 p.m., Burbank, the foreman with Anchorage-based Central Environment Inc., walked over to the parking lot. Crews would be reassembling at 7 a.m. on Friday, Burbank said. He expected the structure to be fully torn down by noon. It had taken a lot longer to clean than it did to tear down, he said.

From there, crews will be sorting the massive pile of metal for recycling.

"We'll be cleaning up for a while," Burbank added with a chuckle.

By mid-October, city officials say, the lot is expected to be filled in, landscaped and vacant for the first time in decades.

What's next isn't known. Terence and Derrick Chang, representatives of Emerald Investments LLC, the company that owns the hotel, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday. City development director Chris Schutte said in an email that the city had seen some preliminary concepts.

"Whatever it ends up being, we look forward to working with them on their next commercial real estate development," Schutte wrote.