One of Juneau’s oldest buildings has undergone commercial transformations that echo the patterns of change in many communities: starting as a bank, transitioning into a cigar store and pharmacy, growing popular as a well-liked grocery, attracting local attention as a national hamburger chain, and finally emerging as a home-grown coffee shop with a loyal clientele. Buildings and businesses evolve together. Each sustains the other.
Today’s Heritage Coffee is housed in the Lewis Building, also known as the First National Bank Building. R.F. Lewis built the two-story structure in 1896 at the corner of Front and Seward Streets. It soon housed the First National Bank of Juneau.
At the time Juneau residents had quickly recognized the community’s key position en route to the Yukon gold fields. Stories of the Klondike strike landed here well before it burst onto front pages of newspapers in Seattle and San Francisco where miners stepped off ships with a ton of gold.
Juneau’s response was quick. Suddenly storefronts converted from simple gable-roofed shops to two-story false-fronted buildings to appear more substantial. While some residents took off for the Klondike, others positioned their businesses to intercept gold seekers. Lewis Building was at the center of downtown and established a well-deserved appearance of prosperity and permanence.
Juneau was poised to benefit as the last commercial stop for stampeders to purchase essentials for their Klondike Gold Rush outfits. In response to Canada recognizing the potential for disaster and starvation if ill-prepared fortune seekers raced into the frozen north without supplies, that country demanded people arrive at the border with a ton of goods. Stoves, tools, food, clothing — the Royal Canadian Mounted Police required a long list of specific supplies for each person to cross the border via White Pass or Chilkoot Pass. Most of it was packed on a person’s back then floated in their handmade boat on the Yukon River.
In December of 1898 the First National Bank of Juneau opened at the corner of Front and Seward. It remained there until a 1924 fire in a second-floor storage room prompted the bank to relocate a block east to the concrete Hellenthal Building. According to Juneau’s excellent historian Robert DeArmond in his book” Old Gold,” “the fire was confined to the second floor but the bank suffered heavy water damage to records, supplies and fixtures.” First National Bank of Anchorage (now First National Bank Alaska) purchased First National Bank of Juneau in 1962 and was a steadfast financial presence on Front Street until 2015 when the Hellenthal Building office closed, and banking was consolidated into branches on 10th Street and in Mendenhall Valley.
Different businesses filled the first floor of the Lewis Building until a grocery held the spot starting in the 1930s. A decade later the 20th Century Super Market marquee marked the corner for many years and served downtown customers with a professionally-staffed meat counter and other essential grocery items until 1985.
As downtown shifted to more tourism, the grocery departed and the building was given new life as a McDonald’s franchise starting in 1986.
At one time there were two McDonald’s restaurants in Juneau. When the famous burger business opened its first store in the early 1980s near the Juneau airport it was big news. At the time McDonald’s had a humorous national advertising campaign called Big Mac Attack. It showed people darting off to a McDonald’s because they were experiencing a sudden “attack” to eat a Big Mac hamburger.
Playing off the advertisement’s theme, residents of Skagway placed a big order for burgers and fries soon after the Mendenhall Valley McDonald’s opened. They arranged for air delivery by a local commuter airline. Dubbed the Big Mac Medevac, the pilots dressed in doctors’ scrubs and flew two food-laden planes as if the mission was an emergency lifesaving flight. There was fanfare and fun in Juneau as the bags of burgers were loaded and transported north.
In Skagway, the celebration continued. A police escort met the planes on the runway and flanked them to the little airport building. Along with 200 residents, the high school band greeted the planes, intending to play a welcoming version of Old McDonald Had a Farm. Weather interfered. It was so cold the valves froze on the horns and they couldn’t function.
The Big Mac (Attack) Medevac made national news and is still a source of amusing memories for Southeast Alaskans who were around in the 1980s.
Times changed. McDonald’s closed the downtown store in 2010. The Lewis Building was empty in 2014 when Grady Saunders, founder of Heritage Coffee Roasting Company, was considering a new location for his South Franklin Street coffee shop. Saunders had started Heritage Coffee in 1974. He began sourcing coffee beans around the world and roasting them in Juneau. He expanded outlets as demand grew.
“Seating for patrons at the South Franklin Street cafe was too limited,” commented current Heritage owner Amy Knight recently. She had been actively managing the business since 2010. Knight purchased Heritage Coffee in 2017.
“We wanted a place for people to gather,” Knight said, recognizing that a coffee spot is more than a beverage service.
Motivated by a desire for improved year-round downtown business activity — not simply summer visitors — Saunders and Knight decided the Lewis Building offered the right business opportunity. The corner location had space to seat 100 customers.
They gutted the interior and remodeled the classic building by creating comfortable window seating facing Seward and Front Streets. They added a kitchen for baking muffins and fresh pastries to accompany the coffee the crew roasted at another Juneau location. Devoted to doing business locally, they remodeled the interior with wood from Icy Straits Lumber in Hoonah.
As with many businesses, COVID-19 presented major challenges. Despite the shutdown, Knight kept her staff “employed and healthy” as she kept the business operating. The wholesale coffee aspect was essential to the company’s survival.
The pandemic delayed one of the most important plans for meeting Knight’s goal of providing a pleasant gathering place in Mendenhall Valley. The old Glacier Cafe was demolished this summer. In its place, a new building is due to open before the December holidays. It will feature a cozy upstairs area as well as the main floor with outdoor patio space for summer. Drive-through service is open now.
History for the Lewis Building has perked along for more than a century while keeping downtown in bucks, beef, burgers and beans.
• Laurie Craig is an artist, advocate and avid researcher of Juneau’s historical treasures. Rooted in Community is a series of short articles, published in the Empire on the third weekend of each month, focusing on unique buildings in Juneau’s Downtown Historic District and the present-day businesses (and people) that occupy them. This work is supported by the Downtown Business Association. This article has been moved in front of the Empire’s paywall.