For the first time in decades, people are being punished for walking into the dreary concrete shadows of the long-abandoned Buckner Building, which looms near the eastern end of the Southcentral Alaska community of Whittier. The city, which is also known as the gateway to Prince William Sound, is trying to keep people safe from a rotting, crumbling and toxic historic landmark.
"It really was just a safety thing," said Whittier's interim city manager, Don Moore. "There is everything from fixtures and things hanging down about to fall on someone's head (to) bears wandering around inside. It's just not safe."
The Buckner Building was fenced off in late fall after the building went into foreclosure and the city assumed ownership, and 19 trespassers have been cited since then, according to Whittier Director of Public Safety Dave Schofield.
Schofield said most of the trespassing taking place in the old military barracks, once occupied by 1,000 soldiers, is done by nonresidents "exploring." One particularly bold trespasser actually skied a line through the empty building in fall 2012, using the building's large empty corridors and stairways. A video of that run went viral.
Locals are the ones reporting violators to law enforcement, according to Schofield. He added that once an unwelcome visitor is caught, he or she receives a citation arrest, which means they are not actually taken to jail but could face a fine and a mandatory court appearance.
As recently as last weekend, visitors were climbing over the metal chain link fence and through old busted windows, according to Moore.
The Whittier Department of Public Works and Public Utilities did some work on the building when the city took over after it went into foreclosure, said Schofield. The floor was once covered in stray boards, rusty nails, insulation, old mattresses, cigarette butts and beer cans. But the most dangerous is the asbestos, which -- at the time of the building's construction during the height of the Cold War -- was a "common building ingredient," Schofield said.
"I don't think people are going to hurt the building by going in there," said Moore. "But by going in there, people could get hurt."
A 'beautiful' building 'abandoned'
When the Buckner Building was in its prime, it was known as "The City Under One Roof." Housing up to 1,000 troops, it featured a movie theater, bakery, bowling alley and post office. And although most of the city still lives under one roof, in the nearby Begich Towers, they have fewer luxuries there than the town's original hub.
Completed in 1953, the building was meant to withstand bombs. Old photographs show building windows still intact, with military vehicles parked in front. In images of the mess hall, soldiers gather and smile while eating a meal.
Artifacts at the Whittier Museum, provided by its curator Ted Spencer, document that at the time of the Buckner's occupation, Whittier's military residents felt wind gusts of up to 90 mph, mostly during winter months. They saw, on average, 264 inches of snow and 174 inches of rain. The Alaska Railroad connected the port to the rest of the state and brought its people out of the isolated location off of Turnagain Arm to the state's biggest city of Anchorage, 65 miles to the north.
Then in 1960 the Whittier Army Port was closed and the building was "mothballed by the U.S. Army," said Spencer. After the military left, building ownership went through a handful of people.
"It was purchased by the citizens of the new City of Whittier in 1972 and changed hands several times, including a period of time when it was owned by Pete Zamarillo, who had plans to create a state prison," Spencer said. "When the deal with the state fell through he told me that 'they gave it away.'"
He said the Buckner Building's condition didn't really decline until the 1980s, when all of the windows were broken, "allowing the fabled Whittier climate inside the building."
Spencer said that although the building is often referred to as abandoned, it's technically never been because it's always been owned by someone.
"Someone should fix it up," said Margie Sheppard, a waitress at the Anchor Inn, which houses the town's museum. "In its day it was beautiful, just beautiful. It's just a shame."
What happens to the building now is up in the air. Moore said there has been talk about demolishing it, but he said the city's stance is to preserve the piece of history, so there has been discussion to restore it, but either option is "very expensive."