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Question: What’s the history of the giant igloo on the Parks Highway? Was it ever a successful business, and who owns it now? Will it ever be demolished?
Perhaps no structure in Alaska has captured the imagination of highway travelers like the snow-white dome at the northern edge of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. But the one-of-a-kind building is no closer to completion now than it was decades ago, when its builder sold the property, giving up on his dream.
At the moment, the iconic structure along the George Parks Highway is empty and vacant. But the current owner of the igloo at Mile 214.5 says that could change.
Inside the spherical building on a recent morning, caramel-colored wood creaked beneath footsteps. A draft forced a back door to groan. Snow piled up in drifts beneath open windows. And a streak of golden morning sun cut across the ground floor.
Halted progress has left the building in a state of increasing disrepair: Windows were boarded up or smashed, graffiti peeked through the snow on the exterior, broken sheetrock and litter were strewn across the concrete foundation inside.
Still, despite the trash, the igloo shows its meticulous construction. Once inside, one can imagine a small, bustling winter haven, guests clad in puffy down jackets, cheeks rosy from recent skiing or snowmachine rides, bowls of soup steaming against a setting afternoon sun.
But the building, about 23 miles south of Cantwell, remains unfinished, quiet except for a nearby clucking raven, a few people peeking around, plus occasional cars and trucks bulleting up and down the Parks Highway.
Tim Douglas, 30, and his mom, Sharon Cope, 63, in Alaska for two weeks from Philadelphia, were snapping photos that morning. Douglas said he was struck by how well preserved it all seemed to be — much of the wood appeared free from rot.
“It looks like it’s fresh wood,” he said.
The two wondered aloud why the building never became a hotel or resort.
“Something just doesn’t make sense,” Cope said as they stared up at the floors above.
Brad Fisher, 63, the current owner of the building, can explain. He’s long dreamed of turning the igloo into the resort and hotel it was once conceived to be.
Fisher, owner of Mat-Su-based Fisher’s Fuel, ran the gas station next to the igloo for a few years. But as the price of fuel shot up, it became increasingly hard to do more than break even. Since there’s no electricity on the property, they had to run everything on generator power — an endeavor that proved costly.
They closed up shop in 2010.
“That’s when we kind of just had to mothball the idea,” Fisher said. “(I) always had dreams of going back up there and doing something, but the money wasn’t there and next thing I knew, I was old.”
Fisher, who has owned the property for more than 20 years, probably won’t be the owner much longer. He expects to sell it by the end of the year. Under new ownership, the structure could be finished and functioning, he said from his office some 150 miles south near Big Lake.
Fisher first came across the igloo while delivering fuel to its initial owner, Leon Smith, the man who built it himself from the ground up.
Smith worked for the Alaska Railroad and had dreams of turning the structure into a resort. He built the igloo using lumber from old railroad camps and operated a gas station there, Fisher said.
“He was just one of them old Alaskans with a lot of energy and a big dream,” Fisher said.
Smith was frugal too, living with his wife in a 12-by-12 A-frame cabin behind the igloo, Fisher said.
“Every chance he got, he’d work on the igloo,” Fisher said. “That’s just who he was.”
Fisher said Smith got hurt in a fall and couldn’t go further with it.
Smith sold the igloo a few times but each time he had to take it back since the new owners couldn’t pay, Fisher said.
That’s the reason Google Maps labels the structure as Igloo City — a previous owner got a liquor license under that name for the building with the intention of having more igloos nearby, and the name stuck even if the owner did not, Fisher said.
As Smith’s health deteriorated, he approached Fisher one day at his office, offering him the igloo, knowing Fisher could pay.
“When he sold it to me, there was tears in his eyes,” Fisher said. “You could tell he wasn’t ready to give up.”
Fisher said he thinks Smith began constructing the igloo around the time the highway bridge across Hurricane Gulch was built, which according to Department of Transportation records was 1971.
Fisher said he received a letter from Smith’s daughter at one point after Smith and his wife’s passing.
“She was disappointed in how rough (the igloo) looked, you know, ‘My dad’s dream is rotting away,’” Fisher said. “And I called her and I said ‘I just don’t have the money to do it,’ and I felt bad, but it was like, what are you gonna do?”
Some 20 years ago, Fisher said, he received an estimate that to fix the structure up and make it sound — adding things like a stabilizing chimney and fireplaces, a sprayed concrete exterior, re-insulation, new windows — would cost about $1.3 million (more than $2 million in today’s dollars).
Fisher planned on doing the work little by little as they could afford it, with the goal of putting a restaurant and store downstairs.
But that never materialized, and now Fisher is entertaining two options for selling it, he said.
The property is 38 acres, with a few abandoned cabins behind the three-ish-story igloo as well as a building that used to house showers and a store next door. A sign overhead still reads simply, “IGLOO.”
“It’s in rough shape right now,” Fisher said of the igloo building. The vandals have destroyed it, he said.
People have ridden their snowmachines on top of it while others have stolen lumber from inside. Once, police called Fisher to tell him that a group of motorcyclists built a campfire inside after sneaking in to party.
Also, after soil contaminated from underground storage tanks was discovered on the property, common for old gas stations, it had to be spread out and tilled in order to allow the petroleum to leave, said Bill O’Connell, a program manager with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Fisher said they dug up almost 2,000 yards of dirt after finding the contamination during an environmental review.
On a recent November morning, the property was covered in snow up to about midcalf. Curious onlookers like Martin Turza, 39, and Dominika Le Van, 30, who are from Slovakia, gazed up at the structure as they tramped through the crusty snow.
The two were on a tour through North and South America and had stopped to look around. Though they were headed in the opposite direction, the pair had doubled back to see the structure after it caught their attention on the drive north to Cantwell.
The structure — with its exposed nails, creaking floorboards and three-story fall hazards — is not safe for visitors. Signs throughout the property warn “no trespassing.” Large concrete blocks covered entrances at the front and rear, but thwarting trespassers has proven difficult. Next to the front door is an adult-size hole in the wall. (The Daily News was granted permission to enter the building.)
The only reason to fix it up now would be out of novelty, Fisher said.
“I don’t think it would be the wisest business choice to fix it up,” he said. “But if you have the money to waste on it, it would be a fun project.”
He paid $300,000 for the igloo, which is what he’s asked for in the past when trying to sell it, though Fisher said he’d like to get about half that now.
There have been many prospective igloo buyers: someone who wanted to grow marijuana there, someone who wanted to film a reality show fixing it up.
But Fisher said he thinks he will probably sell the property to someone who wants to turn the place into a spot for a cup of soup or a sandwich and preserve the igloo for people to walk through.
No matter what the next owner has planned, he said, it will be hard to sell for him, just as it was for Leon Smith.
“Lot of dreams,” Fisher said. “But, I think everybody that’s been a part of it, it’s all been a dream.”