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49th Estate: Whittier, Alaska's Buckner Building

Tara Young,Megan Edge

WHITTIER -- In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was inaugurated, Joseph Stalin died, Moscow announced the detonation of a hydrogen bomb and Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Old Man and the Sea." On average, Americans were paying 16 cents for a loaf of bread and 29 cents for a gallon of gas. And in the small Prince William Sound community now known as Whittier, the federal government had just spent about $6 million building a city under one roof, officially known as the Buckner Building, to provide basic entertainment and community amenities to 1,000 American troops stationed at a secluded base across Portage Pass from Turnagain Arm, at the gateway to Prince William Sound.

Whittier had been established as a military base during WWII, while the Japanese military invaded the Aleutian Islands. The location could provide a deepwater port and was relatively difficult to get to due to its location and unpredictable weather. It remained active as a military installation through the early years of the Cold War.

Initially, the Buckner Building was the location of the base's only bakery, theater, bowling alley and jail.

Today, if it had been properly maintained, the building would have a value of around $52 million. But after the military vacated its Whittier station in 1960, maintenance ceased. All that remains today is a seven-story skeleton of toxic, dangerous and rusting debris that sparks imagination and conversation among visitors.

But now the city of Whittier is in the early stages of figuring out how decrepit the Buckner Building might be, with the hopes of maybe -- and that's a big maybe -- bringing the once-great structure back from the dead.

"When it became city property (in November 2013) it became eligible for the Brownfield Grant Program, and this allowed money to be provided to do environmental assessment to determine the levels of hazardous materials in there," said Ted Spencer, the Whittier Museum Director, adding that the assessment process is currently underway.

Brownfield land is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as property where land could be too dangerous to reuse.

Broken glass and rusty nails are scattered throughout the building. Some basement rooms are filled wall to wall with insulation and broken-down Sheetrock stacked more than 4 feet high. The smell of mold inside the building can be overwhelming. On a dreary Thursday, raindrops fell through the broken windows of the building. Steady streams of water flowed through broken light fixtures, making a constant pitter-patter on the building's cement floor.

On the ceiling there are long, white drippings that seem to have just frozen. Spencer, who's working toward turning Whittier into a historical district, said many people think those dangling stalactites, which seem to nearly coat the ceiling, are asbestos. But really, he said, it's just Sheetrock that has dissolved into the water that seems to trickle throughout the structure.

That doesn't mean asbestos isn't a problem. The assessment will determine exactly how much of the toxic mineral occupies the building, as well as how much lead paint is coating its surfaces.

"I have also heard that it could be that the concrete's lost its integrity due to corrosion in the steal rebar that reinforces the concrete," said Spencer. "If that is the case, the building would eventually be torn down."

What is "amazing" is the fact that the building's flat roof doesn't seem to have lost its integrity despite the heavy snowfall that blankets the town in winter months, according to Spencer.

"If (the Buckner Building) is still structurally sound, it could be resurrected and put back to use," said Spencer. "But either way, it is going to be a major undertaking."

Photos: Buckner Building in Whittier

Watch this video on Vimeo or YouTube, or watch more 49th Estate videos on Alaska Dispatch News. Contact Tara Young at tara(at)alaskadispatch.com.