Most people have heard about Soapy Smith, the so-called “King of the Frontier Con Men,” but what most people don’t realize is that the building Soapy operated out of during his brief tenure in Skagway has an interesting history of its own.
The small false-fronted, single-story, wood frame building currently located on the south side of Second Avenue in Skagway, was originally located on the north side of Sixth Avenue between Broadway and State streets. It was initially a solid vertical board and batten structure with a center door flanked by two windows. It was probably the first home of the First Bank of Skaguay. According to a news story, the First Bank of Skaguay opened for business on December 21, 1897, according to the May 10, 1899 Skaguay News. Although the exact date for the construction of this building is uncertain, it was probably built shortly before the opening date for the bank and may have been built specifically for this bank.
The First Bank of Skaguay advertised itself as having a Capital Stock of $25,000 — over $636,000 in today’s dollars. C. S. Moody was President and Manager and S. W. Aldrich was Vice President, according to Skaguay News. Business was good and by the spring of 1898, the bank had moved to new and larger offices located in the Moore Hotel — currently known as the Portland House — on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and State Street. By December 1898 the Canadian Bank of Commerce, with $6,000,000 in assets — over $152,000,000 in today’s dollars — established a branch agency in Skagway, according to Skaguay News and Daily Alaskan, next door in the Moore Hotel. For a brief period of time the Moore Hotel was known as the “Bank Building” with the two banks operating out of the same building. Probably because of the competition, The First Bank of Skaguay went into receivership and by 1903 creditors of the First Bank of Skaguay were being paid approximately 28 percent of what was due them, according to Daily Alaskan. The Skagway agency for the Canadian Bank of Commerce later moved to a building on the north side of Fifth Avenue between Broadway and State streets and stayed in town for another 10 years or so.
According to the tax records and a title search, the First Bank of Skaguay continued to own what would become Soapy’s Parlor until 1900 but after the bank moved out, it was sublet by Frank Clancy perhaps in partnership with Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, Jr. “Soapy” Smith, first arrived in Skagway with a few members of his gang sometime in August 1897, however, he did not open his parlor until May 1898 which leaves open the question of where he based his operations until then.
Soapy altered the building’s false front by moving the door to the right (east) side and the windows to the left (west) side presumably in order to accommodate his bar inside. He does not appear to have changed the doors or windows, just moved them. He also added horizontal shiplap drop siding to the front, a large trim piece (cornice board) to the top of the false front, and, in addition to a new façade sign, he added an illuminated projecting sign in the center and two small projecting signs on either side of the building’s front. The sides and presumably the rear were still board and batten. Metal bars were installed over the front windows presumably because of the rough elements in town at the time, perhaps his own gang members. It’s interesting that the bank didn’t feel such bars were necessary. He also painted the building for the first time.
After Soapy’s death in a gunfight on July 8, 1898, the Parlor became, in short order:
1. The Mirror Saloon (?) (Frank Clancy, proprietor)
2. Clancy’s, A “Gentleman’s Resort,” (Frank Clancy / Walter Rittinger, proprietors)
3. The Clancy Café “Reopened under new management” as a restaurant (Wm Gafford, proprietor)
4. The Sans Souci (bastard French for “without a care”) Restaurant and Oyster Parlor
Aside from new signs to reflect the new businesses, the building underwent little change during this period.
The Skagway City Council minutes of November and December 1900 indicate that Lee Guthrie, then owner of the parlor, agreed to allow the Skagway Volunteer Fire Department to use the parlor for their Hook and Ladder Company free of charge although later there is an indication of a $75 per year rental charge — $1,908 in today’s money — on this building and the Hose Company building next door. On January 9, 1901, the City was given a bill of $69 — $1,755 in today’s dollars — for altering the Parlor to fit the needs of the Hook and Ladder Company, which included the addition of a brick chimney. The 1914 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map and a photograph taken around 1915 confirm some of the major changes the Parlor underwent in order to convert it from a restaurant to the “Hook & Ladder Truck and Hose Shed” or garage. Once again, the front underwent a considerable change. The front door was moved to the left (west) side and both front windows were removed to make way for a set of double garage style doors, with smaller windows inside the doors, to accommodate the hook and ladder truck. At the same time this exterior change was being undertaken, the insides would have been gutted to make way for the truck itself. By the way, when I say “truck” it was really just a small wagon pulled by the men of the Hook & Ladder Company.
In 1916, the land the Parlor sat on was bought by the Bank of Alaska for their new concrete bank headquarters building. Construction started on the new building that year and the bank was formally opened for business in the new building on March 20, 1917, according to Daily Alaska.. Photographs, tax records, and the Daily Alaskan newspaper all clearly indicate that the Parlor and adjacent Fire Department Hose House was moved across Sixth Avenue to the south side of the avenue in late April 1916, to make way for the new bank building. Workmen took two days to roll the two wooden frame buildings to their new locations just across the avenue and then turn them around to face north, according to Daily Alaskan.
The Sanborn Fire Insurance map of 1948 and a number of photographs also confirm the new location.
In 1935, longtime Skagway resident, former Stampeder, and early tourism advocate Martin Itjen acquired the building and began the first restoration, creating the “Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum.” Itjen, a German immigrant born on January 24, 1870, found his way to Alaska from Jacksonville, Florida in 1898 to participate in the Klondike stampede. After not being terribly successful at finding his fortune, he returned to Skagway where he worked at several professions including town undertaker and coal deliverer. He also operated the Bay View Hotel, opened the first (and only) Ford Motorcar dealership in town and ran the Skagway Street Car Company guiding tourists around town. But most importantly he was the premiere figure in Skagway’s early tourism and remained a tireless tourism promoter until his death in 1942.
Itjen bought the Hook & Ladder Company shed and restored it as Soapy’s Parlor. The Parlor’s interior, however, had been gutted and the front substantially altered to make way for the Skagway Volunteer Fire Department’s Hook and Ladder truck so there was a lot of restoration work to do. Itjen rebuilt the whole false front to reflect his understanding of the original Parlor construction. Certain features of the new front, however, do not match the original. The four main points of discrepancy are:
1. The new siding is thinner than the original
2. The top of the door and window frames are at the same height on the Itjen remodel but not on the original;
3. The Itjen trim piece (cornice board) at the top of the front is considerably smaller than the original trim piece; and
4. The front door is quite different in appearance.
In addition, the illuminated exterior sign is missing in Itjen’s new design and the main façade sign just below the cornice board appears to be slightly larger than the original. The bars on the windows are also missing as is the apostrophe in the Smith’s portion of the Itjen sign leading me to suspect that Itjen based his remodel on several photographs of the original Parlor front, where the top of the sign (and the apostrophe) was covered by Memorial Day banners. It appears that Itjen put in new or used windows, a new or used door, and new or used horizontal shiplap drop siding on the front. He would have also had to buy new or used furnishings for the interior. He also attached a building or two at the back to enlarge the display space although these buildings were attached to the rear of Soapy’s Parlor off-center for some reason.
The Jeff Smith Parlor Museum was an important part of Itjen’s Skagway tours until his death in 1942. During World War II there were no tourists in town so the Museum was pretty much closed. In 1945, George Rapuzzi took over responsibility for paying taxes on the property from Itjen’s wife, who died in 1946, and apparently kept the museum open until 1950. During the rest of the 1950s the museum was closed for lack of resources to repair the old building. In 1963, the museum was moved again, this time by George Rapuzzi, to the south side of Second Avenue, near Broadway where it rests today. This was done to bring the building closer to the wharfs where the tourists disembarked. George centered the buildings Itjen had added to the Parlor off center in the first restoration, added another building to the complex, restored the building a second time and reopened it once again as the Jeff Smiths Parlor Museum probably in the summer of 1967.
Following George’s death in 1986, the museum was again closed. Edna Rapuzzi (George’s wife) died in 1988, and having no children of their own, the Rapuzzi estate passed to Edna’s niece Phyllis Brown. In April 2007, Brown sold the Rapuzzi collection of artifacts and several historic buildings including the Parlor, to the Alaska-based Rasmuson Foundation. The Foundation in turn donated the collection, the Parlor, and the other buildings to Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park and the Municipality of Skagway in December 2008. After the Parlor was donated, the National Park Service began a series of projects to restore it and save the artifacts inside. First steps included emergency stabilization, an historic structure report, and archaeological surveys. The artifacts, which suffered water damage and pest infestation, were removed, restored, cleaned, and curated. The entire building was lifted, rotted floors removed, a concrete foundation built and new floors added. New cedar roofing, wall supports, climate control, and security systems were installed. After 8 years of work, the National Park Service opened Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum to visitors in April 2016. Visitors can now experience the building almost as it appeared in 1967 with many original artifacts on display. Visit the park’s web page to find out more.
• Karl Gurcke is a Skagway historian who works at the National Park Service. He started researching the history of this building in 1996. His research and the research of others eventually led to the production of a report on the building by Robert Lyon entitled “Jeff. Smiths Parlor Museum Historic Structure Report” published in 2010 by the National Park Service that goes into much more detail than this column. Copies of this report can be furnished at no charge, by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have any photographs or other information on the building or Skagway in general, please also contact him. Additional information for this column comes from Skagway’s Skagway News and Daily Alaskan newspapers, Edwin C. Bearss’ Proposed Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Historic Resource Study (1970) and discussions with Carl Mulvihill, long time Skagway Historian. An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station.