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More than a ‘kitschy vestige of times past’: The Spenard palm tree comes home

The palm tree at the Paradise Inn is shown before the hotel was acquired by the federal...
The palm tree at the Paradise Inn is shown before the hotel was acquired by the federal government and the tree taken down. (KTUU) (KTUU)
Updated: May. 7, 2021 at 4:49 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Like Odysseus striving to reach Ithaca, the iconic Spenard palm tree — at once a symbol of a neighborhood blight and of enduring community funkiness — has had a long journey full of twists and delays. Next week, it takes one step closer to becoming a permanent installation that members of the community have been working toward for years.

Spenard Community Council President Lindsey Hajduk confirmed that the 22-foot neon sign — which once welcomed visitors into the former Paradise Inn — is being moved back to the corner of Spenard Road and 30th Avenue next Wednesday. The move comes after several years sitting on its side behind a fence on a nearby lot owned by Cook Inlet Housing Authority.

The housing authority is beginning a new project and needs the sign removed, according to its owner, Cindy Berger. Now, the old neon tree will be housed on the original lot of the Paradise Inn, which has since been demolished, until it can be incorporated into a permanent installation for the community to enjoy. Berger has joined forces with Chad Taylor of Anchorage’s Intrinsic Landscapes to give the sign, and the lot, a new life.

“I’m moved by it, and I don’t know why I’m moved by it,” Berger said of the sign. “I can’t explain it, but I’m really gratified that whatever it is that told me to push forward with this ... year by year, molecule by molecule, I’m getting closer to this vision that I feel is right for that corner.”

A long and winding journey

For an aging metal sign in need of significant repair, the Spenard palm tree has been the subject of interest and concern since the downfall of its former home. Its journey away from the Paradise Inn and back again has been documented statewide.

Built in 1962, the Paradise Inn eventually fell into a period of disarray, described as a safe haven for drugs and sex trafficking.

“It was known to be, at that point, just a den of drugs and prostitution,” Berger said.

The building fell into the hands of the federal government in 2017, when the owner agreed to forfeit it in a plea deal after pleading guilty to selling meth to a federal informant at the hotel in 2014.

  The former Paradise Inn sits on the corner of Spenard Road and 30th Avenue in Anchorage.
The former Paradise Inn sits on the corner of Spenard Road and 30th Avenue in Anchorage.(KTUU)

The fate of the palm tree bounced back and forth when a garbage disposal company hired to clear the Paradise Inn site opted to keep the sign, only to be ordered by a judge to return it. The palm tree then went to the U.S. Marshals Service.

Enter Jay Stange and a group of passionate Spenardians, who pooled their money to buy the sign back from the feds at auction in 2018. Now on the East Coast, Stange has been a vocal advocate for returning the sign to its original location and protecting its fate into the future.

Since then, the sign has sat on its side in the lot near the intersection of Spenard Road and Chugach Way belonging to Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Stange, Taylor and Berger have been working in the years since to form a plan for what they hope is the tree’s final resting place.

Berger, who’s owned the lot next to the former Paradise Inn since 2013, bought the hotel’s lot in 2019 as well. With the building demolished, the lot now sits empty.

“We tried to figure out a place where it could be on public land,” Stange said, explaining a past vision that the sign could be incorporated into some kind of small public park.

That was easier said than done, though, and Stange said that after working with the Municipality of Anchorage, it became clear it was going to be too difficult to find a public piece of land for the sign. Stange said he also explored the possibility of purchasing a few hundred square feet of the Paradise Inn lot from Berger, but both Berger and Stange explained that wasn’t something she was willing to do with the limited amount of property.

After running it by the other Spenardians who came together to purchase the sign, Stange sold it to Berger in February for a dollar.

“I have the check taped here to my wall,” Stange said in a phone interview.

Stange said that while he had high hopes for the sign to move into public ownership, it didn’t pan out.

“I think that Cindy as sort of the owner going forward, she’s going to be the best steward for this project,” he said.

“We always had the same goal,” Berger said. “Which was to get the tree back to that corner.”

‘It’s not really about the tree’

Now, the goal is to repair and refurbish the sign, and erect it on its original lot in a way the community can enjoy. No one’s quite sure exactly how that will look yet, but Taylor has created several renderings of possible landscape designs for the lot.

Originally tasked by Stange to come up with concept designs for a home for the palm tree, in the hopes of garnering interest from Berger and the city, Taylor is now working with Berger to create a vision of how the sign and the lot can be revitalized.

“Landscape really is kind of like a sociological exercise, and we’re all really thinking about people and space more so than aesthetics,” Taylor said. “This is a prime example, where it’s not really about the tree — it’s more about the neighborhood and the history.”

While Taylor has generated some initial designs for the space, he said plans are still loose and will likely continue to evolve. Part of it is how much it could cost just to refurbish the tree — another part relies on the timing of a summer road construction project targeting 30th Avenue.

Project Manager Melinda Tsu confirmed that the city plans to put in improvements including bike lanes and pedestrian facilities, in the hopes that the road can become an east-west connection to Midtown. The city is looking at a start date in early July, she said.

Though the bulk of the work will take place over the regular construction season, Tsu said the finishing touches likely won’t be complete until early 2022.

It’s that construction Berger is hoping to line her project up with. She and Stange have attended meetings with the city for years regarding the palm tree, and Berger has continued to meet with the city in relation to the road improvement project.

Everything got slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Berger’s hope is to take advantage of the already-planned construction that will include the intersection of Spenard and 30th to be able to get the sign erected and hooked up to utilities.

The bid to refurbish the sign came in at $58,000, Berger said. On top of that, there will be the costs of landscaping the site. All told, Berger estimates she’s looking at a roughly $500,000 project, which she plans to break into phases to be able to better afford it. The first phase is the palm tree.

“We knew we had to get the tree up first,” she said.

In order to involve the community and offset some of the costs, Berger has organized a GoFundMe fundraiser specifically for the costs of refurbishing the sign. All other project expenses, from hooking it up to power to landscaping the lot, will be paid for by her. As of Friday, the effort had raised more than $9,500.

Even though the pandemic slowed plans down, and the project is somewhat dependent on the city’s construction schedule, Berger said she’s “more confident than ever” about creating a space to honor the Spenard icon.

Taylor said it’s a project that will rally people together, and help retain some local history. The sign is more than “this kitschy vestige of times past,” he said. As someone in landscape design, he sees how people forge connections with the land and buildings around them.

“We become attached to these surroundings, whether they’re man-made or natural,” Taylor said.

And people have reactions when they change, he said. Despite the myriad changes the palm tree has been through over the years, Stange said it seems to have some kind of divine presence that keeps it tied to the neighborhood.

“It has some strange purpose of really wanting to be alive and well in Spenard,” he said.

In the eclectic combination of log buildings, nightlife spots and neighborhoods that make up Spenard, Stange said the palm tree is one of the things that lets people know they’re in Spenard. He said its revitalization is a positive symbol of investment in the neighborhood.

“Even if it’s not a public park, I think that the public in Spenard is going to feel like it’s theirs,” Stange said.

For Berger’s part, she hopes the project is a way to bring happiness and positivity to a corner of Spenard that, for some, represents hurt and crime. She hopes for a safer, more beautiful corner that people can feel good about.

“I feel that there’s so much positive energy to happen and continue to happen at that corner,” Berger said. “... It’s my goal to bring that corner to a place of joy now, and a place of rebirth.”

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