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Alaska Life

How a severe mid-century housing crisis left its mark on Anchorage neighborhoods

  • Author: David Reamer
    | Histories of Anchorage
  • Updated: March 31
  • Published March 28

Paul Sines shows his Quonset Hut off De Armoun Road in south Anchorage, AK on Thursday, May 7, 2015. Sines moved the former Fort Richardson Quonset Hut to the property in 1960 after his prove up cabin burned. Sines lived in the Quonset Hut for about 8 years and then turned it into a shop. The hut has the original military numbers on the front and back.

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Robert “Bob” Huttle (1891-1967) was Anchorage’s ninth chief of police. When he took the position in 1938, it was a sleepy, little railroad hub. It was such a small town that he carried a notebook listing addresses and phone numbers for residents who wanted to see the northern lights. On nights with particularly brilliant displays, Huttle’s duties included waking them up.

When he resigned in 1942, Anchorage had roughly tripled in population and was well on the way to becoming the population and economic center of the state it is today. Huttle was also an avid storyteller, and one of his tales illustrates a crucial aspect of local life at this time. Two middle-aged female tourists made their way north to take in the sights. Despite deep pockets, they were unable to find a room for the night. At their wit’s end, they begged Huttle to allow them to spend the night in the city jail. He granted their wish and even stored the $3,600 in cash they were carrying, roughly $68,000 in 2021 dollars, for safekeeping through the night.

The pivotal moment during Hutton’s tenure was the construction of Fort Richardson, which began in 1940. Building and staffing the base required thousands of construction workers and soldiers. Many of the construction workers and soldiers were accompanied by their wives and children. The new families prompted a need for new stores and schools, which required additional workers and teachers. The population built and built upon itself. From 1939 to 1950, greater Anchorage grew from about 4,000 residents to 32,000. And all those people needed a place to stay.

The issue with this rapid growth became explicitly clear when 50 workers for Fort Richardson arrived in August 1940 and found nowhere to sleep. A town of roughly 4,000 residents with little tourist industry, like 1939 Anchorage, is a town built to house roughly 4,000 people. A town built for 4,000 people cannot readily accommodate eight times that number. The result was a severe housing shortage, a crisis that spanned the entirety of the 1940s and into the early 1950s. The extreme shortage of both quantity and quality of housing left enduring marks on Anchorage.

So, what was it like to arrive in Anchorage during this housing crisis? The first trick of living in Anchorage then was securing short-term housing before you could address long-term needs. Anchorage Daily Times editor Bob Atwood published a tongue-in-cheek guide to local survival, “How to Be an Anchorage Alaskan,” in 1946. He wrote, “The best approach to the hotel desk is that marked by utter humility . . . bear no outward indications of a belief that you have a right to approach that desk, or that you expect to get a room.” With so many potential customers, hotels ceased offering monthly rates, and some limited stays to no more than three days.

The second trick of living in Anchorage then was finding somewhere to sleep once the hotels were no longer an option. Many opportunistic landowners offered small lots for rent, in and outside the city limits. These makeshift campsites and mobile home parks offered minimal to nonexistent amenities at wildly variable, though consistently high, prices. In short, unless you wanted to camp far from the safety of the crowd, you paid heavily for the privilege.

Joseph Jackson moved to Anchorage in 1950. “I rented a lot with twelve-foot space for $25.00 ($280 in 2021) a month,” said Jackson in a 1976 oral history collection. “This was just ground space with the privilege of bathing once a week in this lady’s house. There were four of us, and we cooked our meals in the yard out of a tent.” While Anchorage residents are still quite familiar with high housing costs, the inclusion of walls and a roof have become far more non-negotiable.

John Parks arrived in 1951. Per the same 1976 collection, Parks said, “Most houses were little shacks. Sometimes there would be bunkbeds stacked two high. In a twelve-by-twelve room there could be six people in a room. In fact, when I first came, I paid high as seven dollars a night to sleep on a cot with maybe fifteen, twenty people in a big room, and I had to go out on the base to take a bath.” Seven dollars in 1951 is roughly equal to $70 today.

Another 1950 arrival recalled being charged “$30.00 a day with six in a room with double and triple bunk beds, and a hamburger and a coke were $3.00.” In the Lower 48 at this time, bottles of Coke sold for only five to six cents. Thirty dollars in 1950 is roughly equal to $335 now. A lot at 13th Avenue and C Street offered a small spot to park a car or trailer, or construct a makeshift cabin, for $50 a month in 1948. That is roughly $550 today. The residents of this densely packed camp shared a single outhouse.

The realities of boomtown life combined with postwar inflation sent prices skyrocketing on nearly everything. The housing crisis created a severe shortage of labor and materials. Wages climbed sharply to meet demand. A common joke at this time was that you needed “Not For Sale” not “For Sale” signs.

In 1946, more than 400 families were homeless, not for lack of means but lack of housing options. Conversely, dogs were readily available. In 1945, a serviceman was transferred back to the Lower 48. The only way he could get someone to take his dog was to offer a free one-room house as an incentive.

When the FBI relocated their Alaska office from Juneau to Anchorage in 1944, they had to commission a new building as no one would rent them office space. Wealthy residents waited months to a year for a new home to finish construction. Kit homes were a popular option for those with means. Essentially a mail-order house, kit homes arrived from the manufacturer with building plans and all necessary parts, excluding what was needed to construct a foundation. Many of these prefabricated dwellings survive, from most of Airport Heights to modest homes in Fairview, just large enough to meet requirements for a Federal Housing Authority (FHA) loan. There are several online guides if you think your home might have originated as a kit.

For those people further down the economic spectrum, other ready-made if less comfortable alternatives abounded. By the late 1940s, the military had surplussed hundreds of thousands of Quonset huts. Soon, these corrugated half-cylinders were transformed into drafty schoolrooms, grocery stores, cafes and shelters. Some are still standing, sprinkled throughout the landscape as sheds and the odd restaurant or office supply business.

Cleared lots of land sprouted trailer parks like weeds, even near some of the city’s most expensive real estate. Traveling west on Northern Lights Boulevard toward the exclusive Turnagain neighborhood meant passing the La Honda Trailer Court — hence La Honda Park today — shortly before the turn into the community proper.

For some, there was power in working collectively. A group of military families pooled their resources and developed a residential neighborhood southeast of downtown Anchorage, on East 10th and 11th Avenues between A Street and Cordova. In 1942, the servicemen were reassigned, and their families ordered to move out of Alaska for their safety. Due to its proximity to Merrill Field, many of the homes were bought by local pilots, including Bob Reeve, and the area consequently became known as Pilots Row.

Some businesses and agencies also took matters into their own hands. In 1943, Pan American Airways — Pan Am — built a hotel for employees and passengers trapped on long layovers. It was located on I Street between West 10th and West 11th Avenues, now the Pioneer Home. Likewise, in 1947, Northwest Airlines constructed a series of small ranch-style homes for employees on West 11th and West 10th Avenues. Several have survived. The Safehaven apartment complex in South Addition was built in 1942 to house Civil Aeronautics Administration personnel.

The construction boom had to end at some point, most unfortunately for those engaged in large-scale development as demand ran out. Nunaka Valley, a neighborhood east of Russian Jack Springs Park, is a prime example. Contrary to widespread belief, Nunaka Valley did not originate as military housing. Instead, it was privately developed, albeit with FHA assistance. Groundbreaking to completion for the 400-home subdivision ran from spring to fall 1953. But by 1955, the owners were broke. The land was foreclosed and seized by the Alaska Housing Authority. That change occurred with little impact for the residents themselves, likely content with having negotiated the tricky landscape of mid-century Anchorage and emerged as homeowners.

Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly identified the parameters of Pilots Row.

Key sources:

“Air Base Hotel to Be Finished by Next Week.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 9, 1940, 5.

Alaskan Blacks Salute the Bicentennial. Anchorage: Leake Temple A.M.E. Zion Church and Great Land Visuals, 1976.

Atwood, Robert B. How to Be an Anchorage Alaskan. Anchorage: Anchorage Times Publishing Co., 1946.

Atwood, Robert B. “Between Us.” Anchorage Times, April 13, 1975, A-5.

BGES, Inc. South Addition Historic Context Statement & Building Survey—Anchorage, Alaska. Anchorage: Municipality of Anchorage, 2012.

“Here’s a House But You’ll Have to Take Snooky and the Kids.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 6, 1945, 1.

Krauthoefer, Tracie, and Kristine Bunnell. National Register of Historic Places Registration for Block 13 Army Housing Association Historic District, September 20, 2016.

Mikelsen, Larry S. Alaska “. . . Having the Best Time I Ever Had”: The Alaskan Journals of Gy Sgt. Robert Rudolph (Bob) Huttle U.S.M.C.R. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2012.

“Nunaka Valley Foreclosure Suit Filed.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 24, 1955, 1.

“‘Open House’ Held Today Marking Completion of 400-home Project.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 9, 1953, 13.

“PAA Plans 2-Story Hotel at 11th and I.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 9, 1943, 1.


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