Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part story told in reverse. This is the unusual history of the metamorphosis of the Soldotna structure known today as Beemun’s. Part one covers the history from the current time back to the mid-1980s. Next week will start in the early 1980s and work back to the building’s origins.
By Clark Fair
Beneath the large, modern, gray-and-white linoleum squares on the ground floor of Beemun’s Variety lies a concrete slab that dates back more than half a century and connects to business origins that predate Soldotna becoming a city — and even predate Alaska becoming a state.
That 40-by-80-foot stone foundation, a hidden marker signifying great change, is the only original piece remaining of a 52-year history that has spanned four main businesses and more than a half dozen ancillary ones.
Looking backward over the history of this structure reveals the shifting currents of local commerce and the individuals who made those shifts possible.
Rising from the ashes
Beemun’s has adjusted with the times — altering its stock as the economy shifted, tastes changed or another big-box store moved into the area and attempted to underprice them. The same sharp business acumen that has brought success to Earl and Alice Mundell in their Sol-Ken Enterprises, MCK Properties and other ventures, has seen them through the changes at Beemun’s over the years.
Today, Beemun’s is a thriving business — with a variety store downstairs and a bicycle shop and a main office upstairs — and it is tied profitably to a national supplier, the True Value Company. The “Bee” in the name Beemun’s refers to Steve and Cheryl Beeson, while the “mun” refers to Earl and Alice Mundell. Steve and Cheryl are the son-in-law and daughter of Earl and Alice, and the business is truly all in the family.
Steve Beeson, who guides the day-to-day operation of Beemun’s, knows that although the fortunes and the structure of the store have remained relatively unchanged for the last two decades, a tumultuous number of months preceded that state of calm.
Just before 11 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, 1990, while temperatures hovered around minus 15 degrees and ashy particulate from a Mount Redoubt eruption lingered in the air, an electrical short at the back of the building caused a fire, which climbed to the flat mansard roof and spread. Soldotna resident Norm Blakeley was driving by, spotted the blaze and drove to the fire department to notify the authorities. He banged on an outside door until he got someone’s attention.
In less than five minutes, firefighters were on the scene, hooking up to the water main and dousing the blaze, which had gained vitality in
the airspace between the tar roof and the insulation in the attic. Upstairs indoors, there hung a suspended ceiling, above which was Sheetrock nailed to roofing trusses and about a foot of blown-in cellulose insulation. Above that was 3 to 4 feet of empty space. As a consequence of this architecture, firefighters on the inside struggled initially to find the fire and arrest its progress.
According to estimates by Central Emergency Services, quelling the large commercial fire required approximately 500,000 gallons of water and just over six hours of firefighting. During the fire, the roof collapsed and snapped a large-volume, high-pressure pipe running just above the suspended ceiling. The pipe was connected to Beemun’s fire-suppression system, and as a result, water poured unchecked for hours — resulting in nearly another half-million gallons of water expended.
Later that morning, Brad Carver, a longtime Beemun’s employee, was one of the first individuals allowed into the building after the fire had been extinguished and mostly investigatory and mop-up operations were under way. He discovered the broken pipe, which was still gushing water, and was able to get to a shutdown valve and stop the flow.
“It was like a waterfall coming down the stairs,” Carver said.
Water from the broken pipe and the firefighting efforts filled the Beemun’s parking lot, flowed over East Park Avenue and covered the parking lot at Soldotna Elementary School. Borough plows had to be sent in to scrape the resulting slush into freezing piles and ensure safety for drivers, students and staff on Monday morning.
By 10:30 a.m., the last of the firefighting equipment was pulled out of the lot, and a fuller assessment of the damage was made by the Beemun’s staff. Smoke, water and heat had ruined most of the stock on the ground floor, and Beemun’s was forced to lease space in a nearby building and proceed with a fire sale.
Beemun’s is a T-shaped building, with a single perpendicular wing that projects north-northwest from the main structure toward the elementary school. Before the fire, a portion of the upper floor of that wing was occupied by music teacher Tom Houglum, who ran his Houglum Studio of Music out of the last room at the end of the upstairs hallway. Across the hall was an art and drafting studio run by Tom Fischer.
Houglum said that he had been preceded in the studio by piano teacher Jan Ireland, who began subletting the space and her piano to Houglum in 1988 when she left the state to join the music staff of the University of South Dakota. When he was notified of the fire at Beemun’s, he said that he drove over toward the store, parked his car across the Spur Highway, and sat and watched helplessly as his studio was destroyed.
“I just sat there and watched as I could see the fire burn,” he said. “And through the one window in the studio I could see things dropping that were flaming down to the floor.” Inside, Ireland’s ebony upright grand piano was warped by the heat and burned down to the wires.
Miraculously, Houglum’s precious Bach organ folios, which had been on a shelf less than 10 feet from the piano, escaped only lightly singed.
After the fire, the building was shut down for repairs, and Earl Mundell decided later to use the entire structure solely for Beemun’s sales and storage.
As winter began easing into spring, Mundell hired a contractor to cut the ruined upper story from the lower story and to rebuild. The entire
interior was repaired or rebuilt as needed, and the somewhat beveled-looking edges of the old roof were replaced by a more squared-off appearance. By July 1990, they had new stock ordered and were ready for a grand re-opening.
Only two years earlier, in June 1988, Beemun’s had had its original grand opening.
Back then, the sign on the front of the building had not advertised The Bike Loft, as it does now. Instead, between the name Beemun’s and the word Variety were two letters separated by an ampersand: “V&S,” which stood for “Value & Sincerity,” denoting the store’s connection to the True Value family of businesses.
Rebuilding from the inside out
The sign and the general appearance of the building in 1988 were the result of a three-year effort to revamp the original structure and prepare it for Earl Mundell’s venture into variety.
When the makeover began in 1985, the building was decidedly not square.
Two gray-domed Quonset huts were joined in the shape of a large T, and the business inside then was the Golden Nugget Bakery. Mundell, who had owned the building since 1971, decided to give the old place a facelift. His decision had been prompted by a windstorm a few months earlier that had ripped some of the tin from the Quonset section closest to the elementary school. The tin had proved virtually impossible to replace, so Mundell determined to fix the problem another way.
He hired contractor Mike Poppin to build a squared-off, wooden-framed building as a self-supported shell around the entire tin-covered structure, essentially encasing it in a boxlike façade. Then, over the next two years, he hired Rich King to gut the inside and rebuild.
In the winter of 1986, King started with the wing and set out to dismantle the Quonset arches that formed the second story over the concrete-block, first-floor foundation. He and his crew then constructed a new interior, with retail space downstairs and storage space upstairs.
The following winter, King and his workers disassembled the full Quonset that made up the interior of the main building. They began by tearing out the floor that separated the upper and lower stories.
“The gnarliest part of that whole project was the insulation,” King said. “It had ancient fiberglass in big sheets, and it was in 4-foot layouts, so it was almost like a sleeping bag or something like that — big rolls and sheets — and they were held in place by this board that was really kind of mooshy, maybe a predecessor of today’s particle board. And the tin that was on that building was superheavy gauge, compared to the tin that was on the addition.”
Once the tin and the laminated wooden ribs that held it in place were out, only the boxlike wooden shell remained. Inside, then, they built a new second floor and subcontracted all new wiring and plumbing, including the fire-suppression system.
The Beemun’s staff no longer remembers the fate of all that extracted tin, but after some of the wooden ribs were sold, the rest were bundled and covered and hauled to the yard next to a Kalifornsky Beach Road warehouse owned in part by Mundell. They are still there, slowly rotting.
And as the new-look building was completed, and the Beemun’s sign was hung out front, only the concrete-slab floor remained to remind anyone of 30 more years of history still tied to that place.