Golden Heart Plaza
Designated as one of the "Great Places in America" by the American Planning Association
Golden Heart Plaza in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska, is a riverfront gathering center that serves as a community venue for many popular activities and events. With its seasonal events and artistic local flair, Golden Heart Plaza has truly captured the resilient spirit of Fairbanks.
Yukon Quest on the Chena River. Photo by Nancy Durham.
The Chena River, as it flows through downtown Fairbanks, is lined with six community parks, almost 100 acres of parklands. Golden Heart Plaza is considered the center of the system, located between the Chena River and 1st Avenue at Cushman Street, the main thoroughfare through town.
"Unknown First Family" statue by Malcolm Alexander in Golden Heart Plaza. Photo by Nancy Durham.
In 1901, E.T. Barnette was stuck. After taking a detour up the Chena River while transporting a large load of supplies upriver, the riverboat was grounded by low water. Unable to safely turn around, Barnette disembarked and established his trading post on the river's banks — just in time for the Fairbanks Gold Rush the following year, turning Barnette’s misfortune into a prosperous endeavor.
Completed in 1986, Golden Heart Plaza is located where the center of gold-rush activity occurred. The decorative-concrete plaza features a ramp that leads directly down to the river, the literal and figurative heart of Fairbanks. The plaza boasts more than 70 bronze plaques that act as a permanent register of names of Interior Alaska families, organizations, and institutions, along with historical vignettes.
The plaza’s central feature is a fountain statue, "Unknown First Family" by Malcolm Alexander. Standing 18 feet high with water cascading over it into the surrounding pool, the statue has been dedicated to all the Alaska families of the past, present, and future.
Fairbanksans and tourists alike have congregated at Golden Heart Plaza to celebrate holidays, festivals, and other quirky Alaskan events. From the 25th Anniversary of Statehood Celebration to the “Tired Iron” antique snowmobile race, the plaza is a focal point in the life of the community.
The plaza embraces Alaska’s seasonal patterns by programming events suited to climatic extremes. In the summer, Golden Heart Plaza comes alive with flowers and an open-air concert series, while a seasonal boat dock provides access to the river. In the winter, the plaza is strung with twinkling white lights and offers a perfect vantage point for watching events like the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race or winter fireworks on the frozen Chena River.
Rubber Duckie Race 2014. Photo by Nancy Durham.
Defining Characteristics, Features
- The 2.5-mile paved Chena Riverwalk extends in either direction from the plaza, connecting to an impressive series of parks, with Graehl Landing Boat Launch and the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center to the east and Pioneer Park and a boat-rental facility and launch to the west. It is dotted with historical monuments, informative signs, local and Native artwork, museums, and pedestrian bridges.
- Pedestrian paths along the waterfront ensure the plaza is accessible and well-connected to the downtown area and adjacent amenities. The William Ransom Wood Memorial Pedestrian Bridge connects Golden Heart Plaza to the north side of the river. Open space and greenbelts along the riverfront feature seating areas, public art, and educational features.
· The Log Cabin constructed in 1958-59 was preserved as the Fairbanks Visitor Center for decades before becoming the home of the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race. Constructed of Native white spruce logs from the Rosie Creek Area with a classic sod roof and a fireplace featuring rocks from Denali Park, the log cabin acts as a main warm up spot for visitors from around the world.
· The Anchor was found during the excavation and construction of the log cabin. It is believed to have been used by one of the sternwheelers that plied the Chena River in the Gold Rush era.
· The Bridge of Flags symbolizes Fairbanksan’s strong belief in freedom of opportunity, historic origins of residents and individual lifestyles. The 50 state flags are typically flown and are changed periodically to highlight historic community events.
· The Carillon clock tower commissioned by the Rotary Club stands 33 feet tall and features Westminster Chimes to mark the passing hours as well as local and national music throughout the day.
· The Time Capsule contains nearly 200 items of memorabilia from the year 1984 that typify the lives led by Fairbanks residents during the period of the 25th Anniversary of Alaska Statehood. The capsule is constructed entirely of portions of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline and set in concrete nearly three feet into the ground. It weighs approximately 200 pounds and is slated to be opened on January 3, 2059 on the centennial of Alaska Statehood.
· The Milepost is an Alaskan tradition originated as a method of orienting the traveler of the Alaska Highway. This large milepost lists the miles between Fairbanks and 76 different cities throughout the world.
- The William Ransom Wood Memorial Pedestrian Bridge connects Golden Heart Plaza to the north side of the river, where Gordon Wear Park is home to the Immaculate Conception Church, one of the oldest structures in Fairbanks, riverfront picnic facilities and the recently installed Polaris Sculpture with 9 historical interpretive plaques.
- The plaza was recently renovated to include runoff mitigation and drainage features.
- Environmental protection of Chena River is a high priority that ensures residents and visitors will be able to use the river for years to come. The city and borough sustain strong efforts to preserve and improve riparian buffer zones, mitigate urban runoff, and maintain a volunteer quality monitoring program for residents.
- The Chena River has brought together cooperative efforts by numerous civic organizations, including the Chena Riverfront Commission, Festival Fairbanks, Tanana Valley Watershed Association, Green Infrastructure Group, the Downtown Association, and local government entities, among many others.
- A web camera broadcasts live footage of the plaza.
· Music Festival Fairbanks – Concerts in the Plaza is an open air concert series during June and July. Golden Heart Plaza hosts 26 to 28 performances by local bands during specific lunch hours and evenings. All performances are free to the public with complimentary ice cream served at evening events.
- The annual Golden Days in July, a week-long community festival commemorating the city’s founding and discovery of gold, includes a traditional street fair, parade, and quirky rubber ducky race.
- The plaza anchors the Midnight Sun Festival, an annual celebration of the longest day of the year, with vendors, performers, food, and activities until the still-daylight midnight hour. The festival boasts the highest attendance for a one-day event in Alaska.
· Busloads of visitors begin their Fairbanks tour at the Plaza daily throughout the summer.
- Summer events include Monday Markets, Veterans Honor Ceremonies, Easter Sunrise service and a variety of performances.
- Several boating events, such as the Red-Green Regatta and the Dog-Gone Canoe Race, use the plaza for spectator viewing.
- Winter celebrations are highlighted by the Celebration of Lights featuring lighted tree and figures and culminating in a fireworks display.
- Each February, the 1,000-mile-long Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race is held on the river adjacent to the park.
Pertinent Plans and Documents