Alaska News

Alaska Capitol in midst of multiyear, multimillion-dollar renovation

JUNEAU -- The Alaska Legislature is spending $33 million renovating its offices, but when they're done, no one may even notice.

At least, that's what architect Wayne Jensen hopes.

Those offices, otherwise known as the state Capitol, were built in 1930 by the federal government to serve the then-Territory of Alaska.

Good, solid construction for its time, Jensen said, but now badly in need of an upgrade.

"This is a very valuable building. It's got a rich history starting as the territorial building and then becoming the state Capitol in 1959," he said.

"They did a good job 80 years ago -- I'm giving them credit for getting it right the first time. This renovation we're doing should add another 80 years to the building," he said.

The biggest part of the renovation is structural, a seismic retrofit. The internal structure of the building is solid, he said, with concrete walls, floors and beams that are in good shape.

What needs work is the brick and sandstone shell of the building, which is not structural and which could fall in an earthquake.

"We were literally in danger of our Capitol crumbling out from underneath us," said Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, chair of the Legislative Council. That committee Wednesday approved the final $27 million for the renovation.

Some crumbling has already happened. Decorative stonework from the building was removed after some fell, including on the Capitol steps and sidewalks, though no one on the ground was hit. Jensen said that in the 1960s larger overhanging pieces were removed, likely because they threatened to fall as well.

"It wasn't designed to our current seismic standards, so the first thing is to upgrade the building structure to resist seismic forces," Jensen said.

An interim project in 2013 dealt with what was considered the most immediate problem, the building's portico and its iconic marble columns.

They were held up only by weight, but they now have new foundations and are actually attached to the building for the first time.

The building's sandstone bricks are also "spalling," as parts of the bricks split off and fall away, likely due to years of wet and freeze-thaw cycles.

The new bricks will be almost the same color but will be able to withstand the weather. And new and replacement cornices and other decorative elements will be lighter and better-attached, he said.

"It'll look the same to most people; it'll actually look more like it did in 1931," after its original construction, Jensen said.

Other work being done during the renovation includes replacement of the old steam radiators with a hot-water heating system. Containing and disposing of asbestos in the old steam pipe insulation was a significant part of the cost, Jensen said.

Combined with new insulated windows and wall insulation -- the original build had none -- the Capitol will cost much less to heat, Jensen said.

The project will also create new space on the Capitol's top floors as two alcoves in the interior courtyard are being enclosed to provide better structural stability, he said.

"From a seismic perspective, it was much better to connect the west wing and the east wing directly rather than going in and out through those alcoves," Jensen said.

The noisy project is scheduled to be done mostly in the summers, staggering the work to keep the building available for winter legislative sessions and taking advantage of seasonal better weather for construction.

But those who work in the building year-round have been dealing with the noise that demolition of brick and concrete entails.

Gov. Sean Parnell, whose office is on the third floor, calls it the "joy of jackhammers."

Those who work along the Capitol's west wall, where work began, moved into the unused offices of legislators who do not have staff in Juneau year-round.

"That building was being used all summer; we ran tourists through there every day," said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau. Pages provide tours of the building for visitors during the summer.

Building manager Jeff Goodell said the noise is to be expected.

"This building is solid concrete. If you are tearing anything apart, it's going to make some noise," he acknowledged.

But he praised the staff for working around the construction, and contractor Dawson Inc. for working around the staff.

"It's been all good," he said.

That also goes for the work Dawson did, he said, which went ahead of schedule. Although only one wall was scheduled to be done in the first exploratory year, the Legislative Council approved speeding up the work as things went well. The back of the Capitol's west wing was also worked on this summer, he said.

The work plan called for crews to take down brick and rehabilitate offices, then the next year put up replacement facing brick. That means even more workers swarming the job site next year as brick is installed on the west wall that was demolished this summer, while the demolition crews go to work on the next outer wall. It will take until 2016 to complete the stages as they work around the build, Jensen said.

Egan praised the Legislative Council for taking care of the building that's so important to the city and the state.

Members of the Juneau delegation have been working with fellow legislators for years to build support for the project, and working to persuade them to spend tens of millions of dollars in Juneau, even when some would prefer to see the Capitol elsewhere.

"It was very difficult," Egan said. "To be honest, there are people that don't want to see the government here."

But the Legislative Council vote Wednesday was unanimous.

Dawson is demobilizing now, and its contract calls for the company to be entirely off the site by Dec. 1. When legislators arrive in January, the west face will have a black waterproof coating, awaiting next year's installation of brick.