75 feet in the air, Fairbanks 'space needle' has colorful, tragic past

FAIRBANKS -- On the outskirts of this Interior Alaska city, a strange structure rises above the trees: A blue, 16-sided house perched atop a 75-foot crane.

An idea hatched out of boredom and Budweiser, the clubhouse is Alaska's "tallest, farthest-north Space Needle," according to owner Jim "Curly" Roland, and its history is colored both by wild inventiveness and tragedy.

Roland, 64, first conceived of the building in 1995, as a clubhouse for himself and his friends.

"When I said I was gonna do it, (my friends) went,' he's crazy, he's doing it, guess we'll have to help.' And they did," Roland said.

On an overcast autumn evening in September, Roland invited two of those old friends -- Jeff Fellas and Ronnie Roman -- to ride up to the top, like old times.

It was Roland's first trip up this summer, while Roman hadn't stepped foot in the clubhouse in more than a decade. Fellas grabbed a 12-pack of beer, and Roland held a half-consumed gin and tonic as they boarded the open-air elevator.

Five people fit quite comfortably in the elevator; Roland said they'd tested it with as many as 14.

As the elevator inched above the tree line, Fairbanks' northern hills became visible, along with old cars, machinery, and other debris scattered in the woods on the surrounding property.

The elevator came to a slow stop, and the men hopped onto the deck. From 75 feet in the air, the Alaska Range can be seen to the south on clear days, beyond the vast, flat Tanana Valley.

"I couldn't afford to buy view property, so I built it," Roland said.

Governmentally, there was nothing stopping Roland from building the structure, which sits on nearly 30 acres of property within the Fairbanks North Star Borough. There are no boroughwide building codes, and no state building codes apply in the case of the tower, said Bryan Sehmel, a planner with the Department of Community Planning in Fairbanks.

Creating the clubhouse was no small feat. All told, around 30 friends chipped in to help.

Roland minced no words when describing alcohol's role in its construction. "This is just the house that Crown and Bud built," he said, referring to the Crown Royal whiskey and beer brands.

The crane was erected first, partially buried and supported with steel cables. Then Roland waited until the dead of winter in February 1997 to place the clubhouse on top. The ground needed to be frozen solid, Roland said, in order for another crane to come out to the property and lift the clubhouse to where it remains perched today. The elevator is retrofitted from the original crane, which Roland bought when a commercial property was changing hands in downtown Fairbanks decades ago.

"Can you believe you're standing on 2,000 square feet, and 16 square feet is holding you up?" Roland asked this reporter, who has a marked fear of heights.

Inside, the building's walls are covered in burnt-orange spray foam. A television gathered dust in one corner; tan couches faced the windows, some covered with fur throws. A Monday Night Football sign from 1999 hung on one wall. On another, a plaque with a 1997 Alaska Magazine article featuring Roland's unusual property.

And then, Fellas flipped a switch, and we began to rotate. A 2-horsepower engine pushes the building both clockwise and counterclockwise, creating a 360-degree view no matter where one stands.

Roland cranked a radio, blasting classic rock and roll -- "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult rang out into the surrounding woods.

The three men stood out on one of the two decks and soon, memories bubbled up in conversation. Weekly football gatherings; watching distant fireworks at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on New Year's Eve; a power outage that left them temporarily stranded on the tower and blackened the entire city.

Once, Roland had 50 people up in the clubhouse. "They all went to one side (of the clubhouse). They did. I'm not kidding you. We couldn't believe it," Roland chuckled.

The clubhouse was a gathering place for Roland and his friends, exactly as he had intended. And things continued that way, for a time.

'The gleam kind of went out of it'

In 2004, tragedy struck: A close friend, John Edward Townsend, fell to his death from the tower during an April Fools' Day party.

"He helped build this thing. He had been up here hundreds of times," Roland said.

The fall was discovered moments after it happened, friends later told Fellas. Wire railing lines the deck, but Townsend had fallen from the only open gap -- partygoers had rotated the clubhouse, leaving a space where the elevator would have been, Fellas said.

Roland was the first to spot Townsend on the ground below.

A Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article from 2004 states Townsend was pronounced dead just after 11 p.m., and alcohol was believed to be a factor in the death. In the article, a friend told the paper Roland was too distraught to make a comment.

"I don't know what happened," Roland said this month. "We'll never know. We'll never know that part."

A decade later, the clubhouse sits unused. The decor, unchanged after many years, feels as though its been frozen in time. Roland now spends much of his time at a mining camp in the Alaska Range. But the structure is still standing, still visible from a residential street on the northern edge of town. And the elevator and rotation feature are still functional, despite neglect.

Even with its colorful and tragic history, Roland said he'll still take people up who are curious about the clubhouse, as he's done for nearly 20 years.

"Anyone that pulls up in the driveway, I'll oblige them," Roland said.

But after the accident, nothing was the same.

"After Townsend died, you know, the gleam kind of went out of it," Roman said.