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Decay prevalent among Alaska's 10 most endangered historic buildings

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published July 12, 2014

Of the handful of structures that survive from the early years of Anchorage, the Wireless Transmitter Building on Government Hill was among the most important in the development of the city.

The narrow wood facility with living quarters, a generator room and transmission equipment was connected to an antenna array stretched 400 feet between 200-foot-tall masts. Its signal could reach Kodiak Island and ships up to 500 miles at sea. From 1917 to 1931, it supplied the only radio communication link between Anchorage and the 48 states.

It also served as the meeting headquarters for the engineers charged with planning and building the Alaska Railroad. The light on its cupola could be seen for miles down Cook Inlet and navigators used it to home in on Ship Creek.

Operators and "radio busters" were stationed in the main offices around the clock, clicking out Morse code messages, deciphering the dashes and dots coming in from far away and making sure the glowing tubes were in working order.

Originally the station was restricted to government business, but civilians were slowly granted access for emergencies and holiday greetings to friends and family. The head of the railroad construction project, Frederick Mears, commandeered it to let the world know about the birth of his daughter, Helen.

Today the building, now owned by the Municipality of Anchorage, is locked and falling apart. Windows have been busted out and doors kicked in. The hardwood floors dip from having stored rocks in recent years.

On July 8, the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation named the site, which includes two associated buildings, one of Alaska's 10 most endangered historic properties. The AAHP has issued similar lists every year since 1991 in hopes of drawing attention to buildings or sites with important connections to Alaska's past that are considered to be at risk for disintegration, demolition or radical renovation.

The designation by itself provides no protection, legal or otherwise. And it doesn't provide much in the way of funding to rescue the imperiled structures.

"We can only make tiny grants," said Allegra Hamer, AAHP administrator. "Perhaps $5,000. Usually less. Our money isn't going to make a difference except as seed money."

The lists' main purpose is to make the public aware that such properties exist, she said, and alert people to the possibility that they may disappear without someone taking steps to save them.

The lists typically include cabins, churches, canneries, prehistoric relics, roadhouses, military sites and, this year, the entire area of the old Afognak village, abandoned after the 1964 earthquake.

Historic context

What makes a building historic? That can be subjective, said Hamer. The totems of Southeast or Wyatt Earp's cabin in Nome, listed in previous years, have obvious connections to the past. But the Albert Kaloa Jr. Buildings on C Street are less than 50 years old.

Nonetheless, Hamer said, they represent an important moment in the progress of Alaska, something of a monument to the era between the Good Friday earthquake and the construction of the pipeline from Prudhoe Bay.

In the years immediately following statehood, the economy was slow. Office buildings weren't going up in Anchorage or anywhere else. The long-simmering issue of Native land claims faced an uncertain resolution, hampered by the fact that Native groups had little money to organize and pursue legal or legislative solutions.

Then oil was discovered on land belonging to the village of Tyonek on the west side of Cook Inlet. Under the leadership of the young chief, Albert Kaloa Jr., leases were negotiated that brought upwards of $14 million to the tiny settlement. The money paid for new homes, appliances, outboard motors and scholarships. It helped fund the fledgling Alaska Federation of Natives. And it paid for a pair of office buildings that were strikingly modern and large for Alaska.

Owned and operated by Tyonek, it was the first highly visible major commercial property connected to an Alaska Native corporation.

Tragically, Kaloa died along with 13 other people in the Lane Hotel fire in 1966, the year that the first of the two buildings was started.

Though dated, the buildings have been maintained and occupied over the years. What makes them "endangered?"

That's a subjective term as well, Hamer said. In the case of a functioning office building, the concern is that anyone wanting to lease the space could make alterations that would permanently alter the period character of the place or efface its historical connection.

Several of the properties on this year's list appear battered but remain in use more than 100 years after they were built. They include the Red Dragon Reading Room and St. George's Church in Cordova. It was the first church built in that town and was once overseen by Eustace Ziegler, one of Alaska's best-known painters.

The McCarthy General Store, saved from decay by local volunteers, is used for educational programs by the Wrangell Mountains Center. A large dock and indoor area would seem to offer possibilities at the Kake Cannery. The barracks building at Fort William H. Seward in Haines is one of the biggest buildings in the neighborhood, and might be used as a recreation or interpretive facility.

But being used isn't always a good thing. There used to be another barracks building, a twin to the one that survives, that housed the office and press of the local newspaper. It burned to the ground in 1981 when someone forgot to turn off the hot lead linotype machine.

Other places on the list are clearly hurting. The old octagonal Alaska Railroad water towers used in the steam era had a structural defect that caused them to split apart. The last one left, now in Willow after having been moved from Montana Station in the 1950s, faces the same problem.

No less precarious is the peril faced by a 1930s-era log cabin in Talkeetna, the so-called "Three German Bachelors" site, one of the most photographed relics in the town.

The building belongs to the Talkeetna Historical Society and sits on land belonging to the Alaska Railroad, which charges $550 a month to lease the land. To cover the cost, the society rented the space to an artist. That made it a commercial property and the Mat-Su Borough started charging the Historical Society property tax.

"The building is now heavily listing to one side," read the nomination petition to AAHP. "The building cannot be moved, or it endangers the historic district of Talkeetna. Since the society does not own the ground underneath the building it cannot be righted without permission from the railroad. There is a conundrum. If it cannot have a proper foundation it will fall over and rot into the ground. If it is moved, it loses its historic significance."

Success stories

Sometimes the stories have happy endings, Hamer said.

The Chief Shakes house in Wrangell is a good example of the restoration and preservation of an important historical and artistic treasure.The Oscar Anderson House is another example of a once-doomed building that has been rescued -- at least for the time being. The massive Kennecott Mine Complex is now drawing attention from preservationists around the world. The magnificent Holy Ascension Church in Unalaska was rebuilt even as it was crumbling into sawdust, thanks to the creative use of federal interstate highway funds by the late Sen. Ted Stevens.

Other alumni from the list linger in limbo, like the Jesse Lee Home in Seward, the igloo on the Parks Highway and the 4th Avenue Theatre in Anchorage.

"[4th Avenue Theatre] has been on the list for several years," Hamer said. "In fact, it was on the first list we did back in 1991.

"Physically, it's in a lot of trouble and everyone knows it. The present owners don't seem to want to talk about it. But it's iconic and we want to keep it in the public eye."

With enough attention, she hopes, the theater and other sites under Damocles' sword of time, change and fiscal imperatives will stay around long enough for someone to come up with the right idea and the right resources to keep them around for the future.

Unlike the Berg-Brown Cabin in downtown Anchorage, also known as the Brown Cabin, thought to have been one of the oldest buildings in the city. It went on the "10 most endangered" list in 2012 and again in 2013.

Then, in October of last year, it was gone.

"One day it was knocked down," Hamer said. "Just demolished without notice."

10 most endangered historic properties 2014

Prepared by the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation

Afognak Village, Afognak Island
Alaska Railroad Montana Station Water Tower, Willow
Albert Kaloa Jr. Buildings, Anchorage
Barracks Building, Fort William H. Seward, Haines
4th Avenue Theatre, Anchorage
Kake Cannery, Kake
McCarthy General Store, McCarthy
Red Dragon Reading Room and St. George’s Church, Cordova
Three German Bachelors Cabin, Talkeetna
Wireless Transmitter Site, Anchorage

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