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Begich Towers, home to about half the population of Whittier, gets a much-needed overhaul

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: August 19, 2016
  • Published August 18, 2016

The Begich Towers stand tall on a foggy day in Whittier on Tuesday, August 9, 2016. The Towers recently received a grant to be renovated. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

WHITTIER – They call Whittier "the strangest town in Alaska."

The main reason for this reputation comes from the fact that about half of Whittier's residents live in a single building — Begich Towers. The 14-story structure contains condominiums, rental units, city offices, the police department, post office, a mini-market, gym, clinic, pharmacy and church.

Built by the military in 1956 and transferred to civilian owners in 1973, the facility was originally designed to house upward of 1,000 officers, soldiers and dependents. At the time of the dedication it was said to be the most expensive military construction project aside from the Pentagon. Reporters covering the opening praised its amenities and dubbed it the "wilderness skyscraper."

Today roughly 100 people live there, "plus or minus 20," said Karen Dempster, president of the board of directors of the Begich Towers Condominium Association of Apartment Owners Inc. The population of Whittier in 2015 was 214.

Whittier, once known as Camp Sullivan, became a major military supply and personnel processing site in World War II. It was vastly expanded with major buildings and infrastructure during the Cold War. An ice-free port, it connected to the main Alaska Railroad line via a 2¼-mile tunnel, the longest tunnel in America until the Ted Williams Tunnel in Boston opened to general traffic in 2003.

The military selected Whittier, on the northwestern edge of Prince William Sound, as a major base in no small part because of the weather. Some observers would call it lousy. Whittier gets almost 198 inches of rain each year, making it the wettest city in Alaska. Wetter than Yakutat or Ketchikan. If it's not raining, it's snowing. The average annual snowfall is 258 inches. Winds can be typhoonal and on most days a lid of clouds obscures the site. All of these factors, planners thought, would make enemy surveillance difficult.

The Hodge Building, now Begich Towers, under construction in the 1950s, as seen from uphill. The trailers in the foreground were provided by the military for officers and their families prior to the opening of the building. (T.M. Spencer Collection, Hodge museum exhibit photo/PWS Museum)

On the other hand, residents seldom experience sweaty heat. The Sperling's Best Places website gives it an 89 on its comfort index, based on humidity (100 is ideal), twice as pleasant as the U.S. average of 44. Anchorage rates an 84.

When the sun is out — 133 days of the year — the scenery is as spectacular as any place in Alaska, and that's saying something. The place is surrounded by glaciers and snowy mountains that precipitously plunge into the blue water of Passage Canal. Tens of thousands of raucous seabirds nest in the cliffs opposite the town, and the dominant flora is towering Sitka spruce.

"I love this place," Dempster said. "To me, it's a piece of paradise."

The 14th floor of the Begich Towers remains quiet in Whittier on Tuesday, August 9, 2016. The Towers are 14 floors high. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

Trouble in paradise

Dempster, a retired school superintendent, now teaches college for part of the year, including summer. That's Whittier's busy season, with cruise ships, fishing charters, sightseeing cruises, kayakers and boaters taking advantage of the water. There may be 1,000 boats in town, some in the boat harbor, many stored on trailers at onshore lots that take up a significant chunk of the limited available land. 

In the winter, heavy snow covers the storage, docks, stacked Conex boxes and dilapidated buildings and vehicles that can give Whittier the look of a junkyard when encountered at ground level. The crowds depart, most of the restaurants and tourist businesses close down and Dempster comes home to her three-bedroom condo on the 12th floor of Begich Towers. She's as enthusiastic about her accommodations as she is about the city.

"I love the way the military builds things," she said. "I just can't stand their color choices." The close uniformity of the building speaks to the stark utilitarianism of Uncle Sam's architects in the 1950s. Metal cupboards and period countertops remain as new-looking and functional as ever. Every bathroom in the building features bright pink tile that one might associate with a Marilyn Monroe movie.

Residents sit near the entrance of the Begich Towers on Tuesday, August 9, 2016. Roughly 100 residents currently live in the Towers. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

But aesthetics can be addressed fairly inexpensively. Several owners of units have added false ceilings and wood floors. Bigger and more serious structural issues have arisen over time. As the building approached its 60th year, several crises loomed that threatened to make the place uninhabitable and potentially unrestorable.

First and foremost were the boilers. When the military ran the place, all buildings were served by a single heating plant. When the Army pulled out, each building had to get its own system. Begich Towers had a pair of boilers in a side building. As of last year only one was running, and the survivor was experiencing major problems nearly every day.

"That's when we panicked," said Dempster.

"We were in trouble," said Dan Johnson, general manager of the building. The boilers moved hot water through the pipes that heated the building, not glycol, the stuff that keeps anti-freeze from freezing. "If they quit working, eventually the water would freeze and the pipes would burst."

In addition to the heating pipes, the metal inflow and outflow pipes were becoming invalids, choked by accumulating calcium and iron that was as hard as a rock. Johnson showed a one-inch pipe choked down to an opening that would barely accommodate a sewing needle.

Not having water coming out of faucets was frightening enough, but what really gave Dempster the willies was that the sewage system stood on the brink of failure.

Other problems included the battered exterior paint. "That's not just a cosmetic thing," said Johnson. "The wind here drives the rain into the cinder blocks," which make up the exterior siding. They also cause the window frames to deteriorate and leak.

The Begich Towers remain partially painted on Tuesday, August 9, 2016. The painting is one renovation that was capable because of the grant funding. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

USDA to the rescue

Funding for repairs finally came with a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dempster, whose credentials include having a law degree, said the paperwork was as daunting as anything she'd ever encountered, but the USDA staff was exceptionally helpful. "They held my hand," she said. "They kept saying, 'There's this one more thing, but don't worry, we'll show you what to do.' When the final paperwork was supposed to be delivered they told me I had to bring it in wearing a pink tutu. I said, 'Can someone else wear the tutu? My tutu days are sort of behind me.' We all had a good laugh about that."

The grant was approved (without the specious tutu requirement) in September, 2015, and work began in January. The old boilers were carted out, replaced by three modern models in July. This was the most expensive part of the project. Crews have been replacing corroded iron pipes with PVC. Old sewer pipes are being dug up, which isn't easy since they lie under the concrete floor of the basement and no one was exactly sure where they were. "When you start digging up concrete, it's quite a process," Dempster said.

The outside is getting a fresh coat of paint — a project that probably won't be finished until next year — covering the monotone tan with a three-color blue, salmon and beige color.

The upgrades have brought cost savings. Dempster said fuel for the old boilers cost $12,000 a year. The new ones should bring that down to $5,000. Switching incandescent lights to LEDs and other energy improvements should drop the cost of electricity for the building from $11,000 a year to $8,000.

Additional upgrades include hazmat abatement, removing old asbestos tile flooring and replacing it with a rubberized surface that looks like marble, improving the air exchange system and floating the walls, that is covering the cinder block walls of the interior hallways to create a less institutional look and make it easier to paint the surfaces with new colors.

Dempster is serious in her disdain of the military color schemes. Doors were previously a light brown mud color. Now the doors on each floor are a consistent and, to Dempster, a more agreeable color, like dark green, burgundy or blue. Then there are the walls of the lower floors. Now they're a solid cream color. Previously they had a two-tone design with a hip-high band of red on the bottom. "It looked like a bus stop," Dempster said. "I mean, like, yuck."

Baptist Hymnals sit atop a piano in the church in the Begich Towers in Whittier on Tuesday, August 9, 2016. The church holds a Sunday service in Samoan in the morning and and English for the second service. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

Life in the towers

There are some issues that even a USDA grant can't fix, however. Like the bears. They've discovered the dumpsters outside the trash room on the ground floor. Though the bins are supposedly bear-proof and a metal door shuts off the trash room, the bruins hang out with hopes of finding an easy meal. Custodians have learned to bang on the door before opening it and to be prepared to shut it quickly if a bold bear isn't scared off.

A bulletin board at the main entry advertises jobs available in Whittier. Early this month they included waitress and assistant city manager. The bulletin board also lists units for rent. A studio goes for $650 a month, $1,000 will get you a three-bedroom unit. Dempster bought her three bedroom apartment a few years ago for $30,000 and recently picked up another two bedroom unit for $35,000, mainly so she'd have a place to put visitors, she said.

The 15th floor (there is no 13th floor) is all upgraded rental units. One is marked as the Presidential Suite. Dempster said Dwight Eisenhower stayed there during his tour of the new state in 1960. The 15th floor also offers the most sensational views, except for the roof itself. Residents gather there when the weather is good. But no one's allowed up there when the winds are high.

The basement contains storage cages familiar to condominium dwellers everywhere, and a room full of chest freezers, something of a necessity in a town where much food is caught in the ocean and even more is bought in bulk during runs into Anchorage. Though Whittier has a couple of convenience stores, including one right in Begich Towers, the selection is small and prices can be steep. A can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs that costs $1.25 in Anchorage is priced at $3.50 in Whittier.

(A drive between the two towns takes an hour if you catch the tunnel opening just right. Traffic alternates in and out on the one lane thoroughfare with train tracks in the roadway. Cars must wait when locomotives come through.)

The Begich Towers contain storage for residents to have extra freezer space in Whittier on Tuesday, August 9, 2016. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

The basement also has the town church, a non-denominational affair. It also used to hold the town swimming pool, a feature much-noted in newspaper reports from the 1950s and '60s. However, the reports failed to mention that it was more like a giant livestock trough, about the size of the hot tub at Alyeska Resort, no more than four feet deep and positioned above the floor. It's gone now. The area is now used as workshop space.

Next to the door to the church is one of the town's most commented-upon items, the underground tunnel between the apartments and the all-grades school. Children commute to classes across the street in flip-flops, even when there's a blizzard. The school includes a large indoor play area; the outdoor playground is covered to shield recess-goers from snow and rain.

"Whenever there's an event at the school the whole town goes over," said Dempster.

One imagines there might not be much else to do, which brings up the question of what kind of person would enjoy life in Whittier. One kind is the person who comes to a point where he or she reconsiders their life and lifestyle from top to bottom. Johnson, for instance, came up after he burned out on his construction job of many years in Sacramento, California.

Dempster described a good candidate for Begich Towers as being "retired, but still active. And someone who still likes kids."

The Begich Towers has a clinic inside for residents of the building and the town of Whittier on August 9, 2016. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

Celebrating survival

Whittier will celebrate the building's upgrades on Aug. 22, even though the paint job isn't done and other work will be ongoing. New signs are being erected and a bronze plaque with the building's original name, the Hodge Building, will be installed. A historic exhibit is also due to be placed on the main floor thanks to a grant from the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area, administered by the National Park Service.

The repairs should keep the building habitable for some time to come. The structure seems solid enough. A 40-foot tidal wave hit the port during the Good Friday Earthquake in 1964, killing 13 people. But the building suffered relatively little damage. The 7.9 magnitude Denali fault earthquake of 2002 swayed top-floor dwellers but only knocked down a few knick-knacks, Dempster said.

The structure was designed with earthquakes in mind. It's actually three separate buildings — hence Begich Towers, plural, not Begich Tower. They are separated gaps the size of a hand that are covered over with material that bends or can be easily replaced after snapping. The design lets the three segments sway independently. Interior walls include "crumble brick" cinder blocks that take the shock, letting the steel beams that carry the weight flex.

"It worked exactly as it was supposed to in the Denali quake," Dempster said. "The Army Corps of Engineers built a marvelous building."

But, like all buildings in the north, it's one that takes constant attention. A potent example of what happens when even the most solid construction is neglected can be seen from the windows of half the units in Begich Tower: the Buckner Building, a concrete sarcophagus from the Cold War.

The sprawling grey building housed upward of 1,500 enlisted men and served as the administrative hub of the place when it was a military base. Today it is a derelict, windows gone, rooms filled with moss, streams splashing down abandoned air ducts and elevator shafts, stalactites hanging from ceilings formed as lime leaches from the cement.

The Buckner Building Tuesday, August 9, 2016. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

Plans for resurrecting it were floated for decades after the military left, but the opening of the Anton Anderson Tunnel to vehicular traffic in 2000 made it easier for vandals to add to nature's wear-and-tear. A large fence now encloses the property, and one hears no talk of rehabilitating it.

The contrast between the Buckner and Begich facilities couldn't be more stark. No one is more aware of the situation than the denizens of the towers.

"It took a lot of work to get these fixes," Dempster said. "But if you don't take care of a place you're going to lose it."

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