The Van Gilder Hotel is a 3-story reinforced concrete building with full basement. The building measures 34' x 85'. There are 2,890 square feet on each floor, totaling 11,560 square feet. The concrete perimeter walls are 12" thick. The foundation is concrete and railroad ties. The exterior is stucco on the south (front) and west sides; north and east sides are painted concrete; presently painted white with deep maroon trim.
The floors are constructed of laminated 2x10's, Resulting in solid 10" wood floors. The basement floor is concrete. Room height is 8' and hall ceilings are 10' high.
A new account description of the building, when it was opened in 1916:
"The first two floors contain twelve office suites with hot and cold running water and lavatories in every suite. The hall partitions and doors are of non-transparent glass. The third floor is being fitted up for lodge purposes and will be second to none in Alaska . All exterior doors and windows are to contain wired plate glass. The windows are the celebrated Whitney windows and the building will be heated by an "Ideal" down draft boiler 3750 feet capacity, with a Honeywell automatic temperature regulator. The radiators are of the "Peerless" screw nipper type. On the whole the building is one of the finest in Alaska .
It is one of three fine concrete buildings which have just been completed but it is the largest of the three.
Mr. Van Gilder deserves a tremendous lot of credit for giving a building like this to Seward. He came in a stranger and seeing that Seward must grow he set to work unostentatiously to erect The Office Block. It is an enforced concrete building eighty-four by thirty-four feet in dimension. On the first and second floors it has twenty-seven rooms. The basement is large enough to house the whole plant of the Gateway and on the third story, in addition to all the rest, are splendid lodge rooms.
At present there are 31 rooms available for rental. Six more rooms make up the manager's apartment and lobby. The basement contains seven rooms and two bathrooms."
After 1921 the Masonic and Odd Fellows Lodge rooms on the third floor became "The Ballroom", after the two lodges constructed their own buildings. As the Van Gilder changed from a professional office building to a hotel, the third floor was for hotel guests. The front entrance was built as an archway, with stairs within the perimeter. The arch entrance now supports a canvas canopy, stretching out over the sidewalk. Under the cornice is a decorative wood trim unaltered.
In early photos a name on the front appears under the cornice and above the third floor windows. After 1921 the name Van Gilder is embossed on the face between the third and second floor windows, and Hotel between the second and first floor windows. Also, a large sign was placed on the roof at an angle toward fourth avenue at this time.
In comparing early-day photographs of the building with today, one can see that the building has retained is structural and design integrity to an amazing degree. The front canopy is the only exterior alteration of note. Inside most of the changes, too, are cosmetic rather than structural. The Hotel, for the most part, has been well maintained and it has been if anything upgraded from its original construction - but not sufficient to alter its original quality and - for the time - "high style" for an Alaskan edifice.
The Van Gilder is not only the oldest surviving hotel in Seward, it also was the largest "and finest" of Seward's first three buildings of reinforced concrete. It retains the original quality appearance and integrity of design. The history of the building brings out the important role played by a major office building and fine hotel during the formulative years of Seward, after the government took over the building of the Alaska Railroad in 1916. Van Gilder has been a vital part of Seward life for 64 years, a landmark structure significant in both local, and state history; and it possesses integrity of location, setting, materials and workmanship that represent a distinguishable entity in Alaska's past, present, and future.
The Van Gilder Hotel was built as a modern office-motel building, completed in October, 1916. In February of that year, E.L. Van Gilder purchased the property, behind the bank of Seward, from T.W. Hawkins (Brown and Hawkins) for $4,000.00. Back in Kellog , Idaho , he arranged for materials, then returned to Seward aboard the steamer Evans with his wife Sarah, and daughter, Florence , in late May. He began construction of a two story office building. In August, during construction, the decision was made to add a third floor, for lodge rooms. William Kingsley, local architect, drew the plans for the addition. After completion, Van Gilder was in serious financial condition. Undercapitalized he found it necessary to sell the building to Charles E. Brown of Brown and Hawkins bank and store on December 29,1916. Van Gilder remained in Seward only until his daughter completed her school year. Then he and his family reluctantly departed Seward. A letter form Florence Cutting (Mr. Van Gilder's daugher), in 1964, stated:
"I don't know why I should care so much about Seward. I lived there only one year; when I was 13 years old. My father had become interested in the town by reading about the building of the railroad; and many people at the time thought Seward was (certain) to be a big city. We lived in Kellog , Idaho , at the time. Father spent everything he had in putting up that building. It was (originally) planned as a two story office-building. While it was under construction, local lodge members persuaded him to add a third floor as a lodge room. Well, the development of Seward was very slow, particularly when Anchorage (instead) began to build up. And my father - having exhausted his assets - could not wait. So he sold the whole thing for less then he paid for the lots. We picked up and took the boat back to the states. At Ketchikan , while looking over the town, my parents were both offered jobs. So we hastily removed our belongings from the ship and stayed there for a year. I worked part time, too. We made enough (at Ketchikan ) to invest in a small business in St. Helens , Oregon . That is my total experience in Alaska .I can see now that had my father been able to wait awhile (longer), his Seward venture would have been successful."
The Seward Gateway moved its newspaper plant into the basement of the new building. As noted in the paper, a moth later, the office building " was fast becoming the civic center of Seward". The first floor rooms were nearly all immediately occupied. The law firm Morford & Finnigan had offices, Dr. Sloan was on the second floor, and the Masons and Oddfellows had fine headquarters and meeting rooms on the third floor. The Christian Scientists and Seward Womans Club also were well accomodated on the third floor hall. The Alaska Importing Co. negotiated for a suite of offices. Several other prominent local individuals had rooms, including James Stewart. By December Mr. and Mrs. C. B. Hill and Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Ryan had left the Government Tract Addition to move into apartments at the Van Gilder. This drew added comment from the Seward newspaper that " the Office Building promises to become the real railroad headquarters building." (Gateway, 12/4/1916)
The first of several "Lowell Creek Floods" occurred in September 1917, flooding the first floor and basement of the Van Gilder, but with no apparent structural damage. A flume kept some flood waters from the downtown area in later years, but until the diversion tunnel was built in 1936, was this threat truly averted.
In April 1917, the property changed hands from Charles E. Brown to M. A. Arnold, president of a leading Seattle bank. The building remained an office building with some apartments, and the lodge rooms for only four years. In March 1921, the Gateway newspaper moved to the former Cottor's Clothing Store. Morford and Finnegan moved their offices back to their former space in the bank building in August. The Masons Built their own separate lodge building. Meanwhile, earlier in the year, E. Swetmann , local pharmacist, and Viola Triplett, were married in the apartment rooms of Alex McDonald in the Van Gilder.
By 1921 the building housed a hotel manager, Joseph S. Badger, former restaurant owner who was interested in owning the building. In the fall of 1921, M. A. Arnold executed a quitcalim deed for the property back to Charles E. Brown, who then sold the building to Joseph Badger. From this time the Van Gilder was a hotel - the finest of the four then in Seward.
From random samplings of guests during the years 1923 and 1924, we find that it was the favorite of traveling salesmen representing such firms as Remington Arms, Barroughs Adding Machines, L.C. Smith Typewriters, Star Brand Shoe Co., and Fairbanks Mining and Dredging Co.; railroad officials (such as Hale); government officials from Washington D.C. ; John Brady of the U.S. Forest Service. Juneau Tiggart, territorial Commissioner of Education, was a frequent guest in '23; as were Alaskan capitalist Austin E. Lathrop, Anchorage pioneer druggist; Army, Navy and Coast Guard Officers, and public and political personages.
When U.S. President Warren G. Harding came to Seward on a significant first presidential tour of the territory of Alaska , he stayed aboard the U.S.S. Henderson (dubbed "the White House of Seward") but all the Alaska Territorial executives spent their time at the Van Gilder. Alaskan Governor Scott Bons (1921-1925) and his wife stayed at the Van Gilder as guests of the city during President Harding's gala welcome. Captain Walter Dibrell superintendent of the U.S. Lighthouse Service (and one of the best known U.S. Officials in Alaska ) frequently stayed at the hotel, often accompanied by his wife, while making frequent inspection tours. Miners from the surrounding areas of Hope, Sunrise, Canyon Creek, and Moose Pass, and others traveling through from promising early oil fields at Katalia, were guests. Badger's advertisements always welcomed tourists, hunters, and miners to the hotel. Many came and all were impressed.
In April 1924, it was announced to the world, via cable, that the first ROUND THE WORLD U.S. ARMY FLYERS had arrived in Seward safely and were resting at the Van Gilder in preparation for the next log on their journey. Photographs taken of the pioneer aviation group in front of the hotel, appeared in prominent metropolitan newspapers.
As the years progressed, Seward remained "the Gateway city". People continued to debark from ships, and pass through on their way to Anchorage and the Interior via railway and highway. During World War II, Seward briefly flourished with the much increased population of the military.
Many fires occurred during all of these years; particularly in the early 1940's. Yet there remained but one leading hotel - the Van Gilder. (The Seward Hotel was rebuilt and re-named the "New" Seward Hotel). Now Van Gilder is back to the original name, surprisingly pristine and well maintained considering its landmark stature and the social and economic role it has played during 64 years of Seward and Alaskan History.
After the war years, the Van Gilder showed less of its original elegance; but it was the place of a continuous pinochle game. At any given time one could walk past the windows on Adams Street and see a game in progress. Old-timers almost daily met in the lobby; and there was always someone on hand to talk to nostalgically about "the good old days". Hunting guides from Cooper Landing, and Moose Pass spent many long winter days in the lobby of the Van Gilder, reminiscing and telling strong tales of Alaskan Wildlife adventures.
In the mid 1950's a Emma Renwald purchased the building. She changed the name to "Hotel Renwald", and added the present canopy to the front entrance. In the 1960's Frances and Bill O' Brien, old-time Alaskans, became owners of the building. They changed the name back to Van Gilder Hotel. They also resumed the once popular pinochle games. When the Seward Skill Center first started in Seward, the Van Gilder was leased to the state. It served as the first dormitory for the Skill Center .
In 1972, the building was purchased by Frank Irick, present owner. When the Skill Center lease expired in 1978, Mr. Irick refurbished the building. Now, once again it is in operation as the Van Gilder Hotel, a veteran landmark of early-day Alaska -when comfort, convenience and hospitality were of legendary quality and respect.