In the nightmare scenario, a big earthquake strikes near Juneau, shaking the Capitol to its foundation.
The building's concrete core survives, but its massive brickwork, never having been firmly attached to the building structure and weakened by decades of rainwater penetration and moisture, collapses in a heap from the fifth floor to the ground. Woe to any pedestrian on the sidewalk or driver in the adjacent narrow streets.
Worse yet, the Capitol's magnificent, segmented marble columns, held together only by gravity and their pedestals, and already tilted downhill from previous quakes, collapse and separate.
The Alaska State Capitol, designed by U.S. Treasury Department architects in Washington, D.C., long before modern earthquake standards, has not had a major seismic upgrade in its 83-year history. Experts are warning it needs one badly. Only three weeks ago, a 7.5 quake struck 200 miles south near Craig.
But while a catastrophic collapse of the Capitol is theoretical, the building is slowly disintegrating now.
Up on the fifth floor last year, Sen. Bert Stedman, then the co-chairman of the Finance Committee, was wondering why papers left around the windows at night were soaking wet in the morning, even when the windows were closed. The office called building maintenance and asked them to fix the problem, but were told nothing could be done short of a major renovation.
Not long afterward, one of Stedman's aides, Darwin Peterson, came to work and found a two-pound chunk of moulded sandstone on the steps of the building's main entrance. It had broken loose from the building above.
"I picked it up and I went to Don Johnston, the building manager, and I said, 'What the heck is this?' and he said, 'That's what I was telling you about -- the building's falling apart,'" Peterson said.
Today, temporary scaffolding has been erected beneath the portico roof to catch chunks of sandstone, terra cotta or brick before they fall. Thick timbers held to the columns with steel bands help support the column segments and the scaffolding.
"We'd hate to have it falling on somebody," said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.
Meanwhile, the Legislative Council, the House-Senate committee that conducts the Legislature's business, is awaiting a report from Juneau architect Wayne Jensen on the cost of repairs.
Jensen said he expects to deliver the report in February or March. If he gets the go-ahead, he said, repairs and seismic modifications on the portico and its columns can begin after the Legislature goes home in April, with the remaining work on the Capitol's masonry skin and structure completed in phases over the next three years.
It will cost millions, though Jensen and his consultants are still figuring it out.
"It's a significant amount, but it's not $50 or $60 million," Jensen said.
JUST UNDER SURFACE: CAPITAL MOVE
The state of the aging Capitol and the cost of repairs is reawakening fears, never far below the surface in Juneau, that some legislator from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough or Anchorage will use it as a reason to push a capital move to Southcentral.
"That issue is there all the time," said Egan, a Democrat who joined the Senate Republican majority as a way to look out for his constituents.
"We get smart-ass comments from other unnamed legislators that won't ever leave it alone," Egan said. "We'll be talking on something totally unrelated to the issue and then all of a sudden the capital gets injected."
After Peterson retrieved the stone that fell on the portico steps, Stedman, his boss, began asking questions. He learned that the Legislative Affairs Agency, the Legislature's administrative arm, had commissioned a report on the portico two years before from Seattle architect Paul Lukes, an expert on preserving and restoring the outer shells of old structures -- the "building envelope."
His 244-page report, dated Dec. 31, 2010, analyzed the portico's serious degradation from water and the potential for a seismic disaster, and spoke generally of problems throughout the Capitol.
Stedman got his first look at the document 15 months later. Johnston, the building manager, said no legislator was given the report because none had asked for it until Stedman -- but Johnston also acknowledged it was unlikely anyone knew it had been commissioned.
Pam Varni, director of the Legislative Affair Agency, said the report was "preliminary" and saw no need to distribute it to legislators. She said a copy was provided to the chair of the Legislative Council.
"It was definitely not hidden," Varni said. "It didn't rise to the level of a (legislative) council meeting because I believe the report you're talking about was under $25,000, and so it didn't take council action to do that."
But Former Sen. Linda Menard, who became chairwoman of the council in January 2011 and served through last year, said she didn't get a copy until 2012. Her former aide, Cathy Tilton, confirmed that recollection.
"We did not get a copy of the report until after the incident" involving Peterson, Tilton said.
Stedman, a Republican from Sitka, said he understood the concerns in Southeast about keeping Juneau as the capital, but said the integrity of the building and the safety of the people who use it had to come first.
"I think there was some concern that, with the capital move discussions from time to time, if there was a major appropriation required to fix the Capitol, some people would try to seize on it for political gamesmanship to move that capital. I didn't care. If that discussion has to take place, it'll take place. And then we'll fix the building."
Rep. Bill Stoltze, a Republican form Chugiak who has supported moving the capital, said if the repairs will cost tens of millions of dollars, it will revive the debate on talk radio and other media even if legislators don't instigate the discussions.
"It's a legitimate debate to have if you're talking about spending that kind of money," he said.
Stoltze sits on the Legislative Council and approved the $1.1 million contract to Jensen for the repair plan -- but only if "cosmetic stuff" isn't part of the package.
"The top concern ought to be structural and safety issues on an old building," he said. "It's a public building, make sure it's safe. They were talking about falling pieces of facade."
'REAL RISK OF COLLAPSE'
Construction on what was then called the Federal and Territorial Building began in 1929. Were it not for the portico with its four Alaska marble columns, quarried from Prince of Wales Island, the building could be a large county courthouse or federal building anywhere in the country from that era. The outer layer is a mix of bricks, pale Indiana sandstone cladding and terra cotta tiles.
"The building was well-designed for the 1920s and '30s but doesn't meet today's seismic codes," said Jensen, the Juneau architect.
In his 2010 report, Lukes said the architect's choices at the time weren't ideal for Juneau.
"Due primarily to a combination of some ill-advised initial design approaches and material selections, as well as the effects of 80 years of Juneau's climate, many of the building's exterior elements have begun to display signs of leakage, degradation and stress," he wrote.
Sandstone and other masonry elements, for instance, can absorb moisture in wet winters and lose it hot, dry summers -- but Juneau has no dry season, Lukes said. That "basic flaw" in design has led to water entering the building and "accelerated degradation," he wrote.
Jensen, the Juneau architect, said the situation was made worse by past sandblasting of the bricks to improve their appearance. That took off the hard crust of the bricks, making them more porous.
Referring to his own work and a previous engineering study from 2002, Lukes said the concrete frame lacks protection against sheering forces of an earthquake. Also troublesome is the fact that the masonry core of the external walls, composed of one to three layers of brick and more than a foot thick, "is not secured in any way to the primary concrete structure. This increases seismic risk at these masonry-infill walls, which could collapse even if the primary structure maintains overall integrity in any future earthquakes."
Lukes said the structural deficiencies and the water issues could be solved by a combination of additional concrete, "shotcrete" (concrete applied though high-pressure pumps and hoses), steel bracing and drainage. While large-scale reconstruction of the external walls would provide the optimum solution, state officials asked for an approach that saves "as much of the existing construction as is possible." That likely means even after the job is done, bricks might continue to decay and break off, Lukes wrote.
Currently, only mortar and small dowels connect the three sections of each marble column. Lukes said that's "a major concern as it poses a real risk of collapse during significant earthquakes." Lukes suggests the repair method used at the Washington and Utah state capitols: drilling down the center of each column, then inserting a steel rod and cementing it in place. The columns could then be firmly attached to the main building with concrete beams.
As they sit now, the only structural role of the columns is to hold up the small portico roof, Jensen said. "They're probably 10 times bigger than they need to be for that -- they're there more for symbolism, to emphasize the front entry of the building: this is the Capitol, this is the front door. They certainly wouldn't need to be that large, but we got them and we're keeping them."
Jensen said he's designing the repairs to match the existing structure as much as possible. Where concrete will replace sandstone or new bricks for replace old, the colors can be matched.
"The idea is to bring it back to its same appearance so it would be there for another 80 years," he said. "This is valuable state resource -- it is a historic building, and even if not a capitol, it needs to be fixed. It holds a valuable position in Alaska history."
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER