Alaska Life

That time Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame had a beef with Anchorage’s bright-yellow Sunshine Plaza

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.

Anchorage residents love their chain restaurants, though some have difficulties being honest with themselves. Area residents also cherish the wide variety of locally owned and unique eateries. But every fast-food opening is accompanied with massive crowds and long lines that linger for weeks. People went crazy when the first Dairy Queen in town opened in 1952, and they went crazy when Krispy Kreme opened in 2016, even though there were already existing ice cream and donut options. The Sonic coming soon in South Anchorage will prove this point all over again.

[Related: Anchorage residents go a little nuts when national chains arrive in town. It’s been happening since sliced bread.]

Among all the chains, McDonald’s holds a special place in the hearts of many Alaskans and within Anchorage history. The first McDonald’s in Alaska opened in Anchorage on July 2, 1970, at Arctic and Northern Lights Boulevards. This arrival marked Anchorage’s ascension to a new stage of relevance, long before Walmart, Costco, Subway, Starbucks, Taco Bell and Target made their way north.

More McDonald’s franchises in Alaska soon followed, on DeBarr Road, Old Seward Highway and in Fairbanks. In 1975, the fifth Alaska McDonald’s opened in downtown Anchorage. The 126-seat building was then the largest McDonald’s on the West Coast. The structure complied with building and planning codes by going with a muted design meant to blend in with the neighborhood, primarily with the Alaska National Bank of the North location next door. There was no Ronald McDonald statue, no massive roadside sign.

Ray Kroc (1902-1984), the former CEO and self-styled founder of McDonald’s, was on hand for the opening. By this time, he had retired from day-to-day operations but remained the public face of the company. This was his third trip to Anchorage, his first coming in 1971 to celebrate the first anniversary of McDonald’s in Alaska. By all accounts, he loved Alaska, especially the food and scenery. During his 1975 visit, he announced a $250,000 gift for the Providence Hospital burn center.

While the billionaire often employed a self-deprecating wit, he also tended toward self-aggrandizement, a pattern best exemplified by his claim of founding McDonald’s. The McDonald brothers, Richard and Maurice, started with a single San Bernadino, California, restaurant and were already franchising the operation when Kroc convinced them to expand further. Seven years later, Kroc leveraged them out of the company.

Kroc was also an uninhibited talker. If he thought something, he’d say it regardless of social niceties, which sounds more positive than it was to experience. After retiring as McDonald’s CEO in 1974, he amused himself as the heavy-handed owner of baseball’s San Diego Padres. A 1969 expansion team, the Padres took a long path toward respectability. They didn’t finish with a winning record until 1978 and didn’t make a playoff appearance until 1984.

During an especially demoralizing performance in a 1974 game, Kroc commandeered the public address system. “Ladies and gentleman, I suffer with you,” he announced. “This is the most stupid baseball playing I’ve ever seen.” In other words, If Kroc was willing to denigrate his own business in the most public way possible, nothing would prevent him from speaking his mind, which sets the stage for his next visit.

In 1977, he returned to Anchorage. As might be expected, he was generous with his thoughts, uniformly negative thoughts, about the city. He expressed some bile about the collection of bars and XXX shops that largely defined downtown in the Anchorage Times. “You got no class,” he said. “Why don’t you guys get a bulldozer and clean out the whole mess and build something decent.”

He saved most of his venom for the downtown McDonald’s newest neighbor. The Sunshine Plaza, also known as the Sunshine Mall, opened in late March or early April 1977, directly east of the fast-food restaurant. The blocky, bright yellow building looked about as it does now. Said Kroc, “It’s just horrible. Where is the planning and pride of the city to allow such a terrible thing to be put up? The mayor should be tarred and feathered for allowing that.” Anchorage Mayor George Sullivan, the Sullivan Arena namesake, was out of town and made no later public comment regarding Kroc.

Sunshine Plaza architect, Galen Grant, was less than pleased by Kroc’s criticism. He could have either rolled with the punch in the near certainty that the comments would soon be forgotten or fought a billionaire in the court of public opinion. He chose the latter. In a letter to the Anchorage Times, Grant wrote. “It’s a shame that those least qualified to act as architectural and planning critics are permitted to do so. Is ‘phenomenal hamburger success’ the license to judge.”

William Pargeter, then owner of all Alaska McDonald’s franchises, doubled down on Kroc’s sentiments towards Anchorage. In his own letter to the Anchorage Times, Pargeter stated, “Grant’s negative remarks are the only negative remarks regarding Kroc’s visit that I have heard and, in fact, 100 percent of the comments thus far have indicated that what was said needed to be said and we should listen carefully to see if we can’t increase the quality of our lives, not only in the downtown Anchorage area but throughout the community.”

Grant, of course, was wrong about the nature of critics. Buildings are not made solely to be enjoyed by architects, nor movies for actors, or paintings for painters. Everyone is free to criticize everything regardless of experience or knowledge. The public can still be demonstrably wrong, but they certainly have the right to their opinions about a building.

The arrogance of Grant’s response played a role in the tone of the debate. Subsequent letters to the newspapers indicate the nature of the discussion regarding Grant and the Sunshine Plaza at the time. Wrote one local, “[Sunshine Plaza] looks like a collection of yellow Quonset huts and definitely detracts from the other buildings on the block. Not only is it gaudy, but in its present location, it lacks all artistic value. If I were an architect and had designed that ridiculous creation, I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to know about it.” Another resident said, “Virtually all who view the Sunshine Mall from down the block agree it is a garish mistake . . . how blessed that someone besides architects pass judgment on architecture.”

Worse, the Sunshine Plaza also was a major disappointment to its developers. Like seemingly every mall in Anchorage history, management struggled to obtain tenants for the new facility. Seattle-based though Anchorage-raised fine artist Jamie Bollenbach was in town during and after these events. For him, the Sunshine Plaza “felt too big, half alive.” “I remember long halls with nearly empty stores with small inventories that were gone the next time I came by,” says Bollenbach. “I used it mostly as a windbreak at Rondy.”

Time moved on. Ray Kroc died in 1984. His autobiography, “Grinding It Out,” makes no mention of Alaska, let alone Anchorage. The downtown McDonald’s eventually closed; the building now houses the Alaska Mint.

After a long and distinguished career in Anchorage, Galen Grant is now a principal partner with FCGA Architecture based in Danville, California. It has been more than 40 years since the Kroc-Sunshine Plaza kerfuffle. So, it is understandable that Grant did not respond to inquiries for this article. In the end, it was a tempest in a teacup, a distracting bit of commotion. Coincidentally, another Grant project recently returned to public focus, the former Alaska Club on Tudor Road that the Municipality considered — then rejected — buying to house homeless services.

The Sunshine Plaza remains primarily unchanged. Anchorage architect Tim Conrad offers a current perspective on the building. The lifelong Alaskan and secretary/treasurer of the Alaska chapter of the American Institute of Architects says, “I can see how some would criticize Sunshine Plaza. The bright yellow may assault the eyes of passersby. The curved glazing up on the top level may feel like a clunky form, as if drawn by an 8-year-old. The back of the building faces Third Avenue, a parking desert and uninspiring space that is further depressed by the full height of the building rising up into the bluff between Third and Fourth, which blocks any possible warmth from the sun.”

Yet, he adds, “Sunshine Plaza sits boldly in an otherwise neutral environment. And for a location that sees its daily sun exposure dwindle to just under five and half hours in December, why not let a building be a beacon of brightness, vibrance and cheerfulness? In its mundane and neutral downtown ecosystem, I believe the Sunshine Plaza effectively sets itself apart. It creates a place marker, a known element, and is an effective wayfinder for local and visitor alike.”

Key sources:

Bollenbach, Jamie. Twitter message to author, July 18, 2021.

Caulkins, Vernon D. Letter to editor. “Doesn’t Like the Sunshine Mall.” Anchorage Times, September 18, 1977, 10.

Conrad, Tim. Email message to author. July 19, 2021.

Epler, Patti. “Hamburger Empire Was Started with a Little Shop in California.” Anchorage Times, August 23, 1977, 1, 3.

Grant, Galen. Letter to editor. “Sunshine Plaza.” Anchorage Times, August 31, 1977, 5.

Pargeter, William. P. Letter to editor. “Our Community’s Architecture.” Anchorage Times, September 20, 1977, 7.

“Sunshine Mall Architecture.” Anchorage Times, September 13, 1977, 5.

Tobin, William J. “Saturday Sundry.” Anchorage Times, August 27, 1977, 11.