In the course of human events, some names and ideas are just too good to go out of fashion forever.
In Juneau, after decades of absence, the town is home once again to a bar and music joint named the Crystal Saloon, which is at least the third iteration of its name, according to a former owner.
The newest version, which replaced the Viking Lounge on Front Street, took a bit of doing to bring to life, said owner Jared Curè, who purchased the Viking in 2020 and took the building through refit.
“It’s been great to have the doors open. It’s been a long time coming. It’s been two very difficult years and a bit of a challenging remodel,” Curè said in an interview. “I bought this place at the end of January 2020. The original plan was to operate that year and then, six weeks later, COVID hit. With that, I started to think about some upgrades, thinking we were going to be shut down for a little bit of time.”
The overhaul process ran slightly longer than that as more and more structural problems presented themselves, Curè said, stretching into early 2022 when the Crystal Saloon reopened its doors several weeks before the Alaska Folk Festival.
“The project has evolved over the last couple years. Initially it was a thought that it would be nice to have a stage there. At no point in 2020… there was no thought that I’d be ripping the building apart and rebuilding it,” Curè said. “I ended up taking it to the ground and rebuilding it from the bottom up.”
The moose hung over the bar and a totem pole near the broad front doors were some of the only surviving elements of the gutting, Curè said. Now, the interior is redone in design modeled after classic bar elements, Curè said, barely recognizable compared to the Viking it replaced.
“In many ways it’s an updated version of a bar that would have been put up a hundred years ago with a slight modern twist,” Curè said. “Each piece of this has different inspiration. In some ways, these things are a nod to the past — updated with an aesthetic that I like and a cohesive package that works well today. Everything from this back bar cabinetry is a reproduction of a Brunswick back bar. The ones that remain are very highly regarded. This wallpaper is a crushed velvet damask that I found behind the walls in a burgundy. The wallpaper kind of dictated the paint.”
Among the most noticeable features is the wide, shallow stage dominating the wall across from the bar, designed with concerts and acoustics in mind, Curè said, giving artists a purpose-built stage to perform on, including a 30-foot black walnut stage arch carved by local woodcarver Henry Webb.
“I’ve been very happy with the acoustics. Not only the equipment I decided to invest I’ve been pleased with, but all the investments in sound mitigation but the people I’ve been working with, having a sound engineer,” Curè said. “I think not only the customers appreciate it but the band appreciates it too.”
A name with a lineage
The choice to rename the bar came as the refit progressed from a simple makeover to a bone-deep overhaul, Curè said, and the concept of the end product changed with it.
“I felt that I had made such significant changes that the name the Viking didn’t have much relevance anymore to what I was doing. I was putting together a live music venue and I thought it deserved a name change and more closely resembled the product we were trying to put out,” Curè said. “I asked (former owner) Pete Metcalfe if it was OK if I used the name and he said it was OK.”
Metcalfe, who founded and managed a Crystal Saloon near the tram in the late ‘70s, said he’s glad to hear the name gracing the lips of Juneau’s worthies again.
“I think Jared has done a wonderful job. The amount of sweat equity he put into that rivals ours,” Metcalfe said in a phone interview. “It’s fun to hear people talking about going down to the Crystal. It brings back memories.”
Metcalfe started his version of the Crystal Saloon in 1976 with a lot of sweat, a lot of volunteer support and very little money, located near the current location of the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tram. It was named after the Crystal Saloon and Ballroom, which existed in the ‘30s as a bar connected to more salubrious industries, such as prostitution.
Metcalfe was able to find photos of the old building, along with anecdotes from friends who knew of the previous establishment despite a lack of advertisements for the bar in the newspapers of the day.
“We put it together; they weren’t advertising because there were aiding and abetting houses of ill repute. They didn’t need to advertise,” Metcalfe said. “Then some Russians bought it in the ‘40s and named it the Occidental. They had to put a cage around the stage because of all the beer bottles in the air.”
The Occidental limped on until 1976, when Metcalfe, along with John Ingalls and a number of Seattle partners, picked it up inexpensively with big plans.
“We opened on Halloween day of 1976. The town was very much ready for our bar. It was the pipeline. It was also the capital move era- — Juneau’s future was uncertain. There was very little new construction,” Metcalfe said. “It was originally the Occidental Bar. I had been in a lot of bars in my day and I had never seen one as degraded as the Occidental Bar. You could watch the tide come in through the broken boards behind the bar.”
Like the current Crystal Saloon, Metcalfe’s iteration was intended as a music venue.
“The first night was a blowout,” Metcalfe said. “I realized after a couple months we couldn’t beat ‘em off with a stick on Friday and Saturday night, but the rest of the week was pretty weak. I began soliciting musical acts from Anchorage who could come down and perform for a modest cost to me.”
Metcalfe brought in out of town musicians like Taj Mahal, Mose Allison and Merle Travis, who would be the Alaska Folk Festival’s very first guest artist.
“The other thing I’m kind of proud of is we were the first bar and only bar for many years that had our own sound system. We played the music behind the bar using a record player,” Metcalfe said. “We were controlling the music during the day and then we presented music at night.”
The bar also hosted Jim Pepper, a renowned Native American jazz musician.
“Jazz never paid as a performance in the bar. But it gave us street cred like nothing else,” Metcalfe said. “Jim was in a class by himself. He had these signature songs that were Native American chants put to jazz. ‘Witchi-Tai-To’ was his signature piece.”
Metcalfe managed the bar for about two years before a split with some of the other Seattle-based partners caused him to leave, he said.
“The building persisted for many years, eventually becoming a hazard and abandoned,” Metcalfe said. “It was also the cause of the demise of the Crystal Saloon.”
Curè enters the story here, playing a role in the demolition of the old building long before he would rebuild a bar bearing the same vaunted name, he said.
“It shut down and it was vacant for a while,” Curè said. “When I was in middle school, my dad was a contractor and he got the contract to take down that building. I was in there with a sledgehammer knocking down walls.”
A bar resurgent
With the doors of the newest iteration wide open, Curè said, his eyes are fixed on the future.
“We’ve had quite a few acts in the month we’ve been open. I think we’ve had more than 20 acts so far. I think many artists in town have been happy to have a new stage,” Curè said. “We’ve got a lot of booking requests. I think the challenges in a music venue in a place as far away as Alaska is getting people in from out of town. We’re hoping we’ll be able to provide quality entertainment and people will spend a few extra bucks on a ticket to get really awesome bands up here.”
Curè said he’s currently reaching out, booking bands including the Young Dubliners, who will perform in August. The Crystal Saloon will fill a different niche than Curè’s other bar in Juneau, the Narrows.
“We’re leaning into the live entertainment. It could be theater, it could be comedy. Larger groups can come here,” Curè said. “The product is different. I still have a lot of really great cocktails but it’s maybe not such a bespoke product as the Narrows.”
Other aspects of the bar, including the upstairs and backroom area, are still under refit, Curè said. The upstairs is in the end stages of its reconstruction, Curè said.
“In about a month I should hopefully open upstairs. I’m going to have the pool tables back. I plan on having the pool tables and ski-ball, pinball, old arcade games,” Curè said. “We’re going to lean into the arcade-bar concept.”
Curè said he’s opening the bar in phases to avoid running out of space for something he might need down the line, so as to build a bar that can go the distance.
“I have a very long-term view when it comes to projects and recapture of capital. When I think about building a bar, I think about building a bar for the next hundred years,” Curè said. “Every piece of the project, I painstakingly think over to build something that has a lot of longevity to it.”
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.