Governor's mansion not immune to Southeast weather, 100-year-old house gets major renovations

Almost 100-year-old house gets major renovations

Like all structures facing the churning winds of tide and time the large white home on a smaller block of Calhoun Avenue, bordered by 7th, 8th, and Indian Streets has been battered by Southeast Alaska’s weather conditions.


At four stories and roughly 16,000 square feet, the residence of Alaska’s territorial and state leadership, is not, except for size, unlike many homes in Southeast Alaska that provide their occupants with delight, worry and protection.

“This is our favorite spot in the house,” current occupant First Lady Sandy Parnell said, gesturing to the library where she and Governor Sean Parnell will light a fire in the winter and let their dog Annie curl up asleep and chase cats in her dreams.

“And we spend lots of time in the kitchen.”

As the first lady walked across original hardwood flooring, work crews subcontracted by Alaska Commercial Contractors Inc. were busy on exterior projects as part of a $1, 489,490.00 winning bid for the Governor’s House Exterior Improvements Project Contract Award.

The project began April 4, and involves stripping down the exterior paint, making repairs, and repainting the original construction.

Original drawings in 1912 of the U.S. Executive Mansion, then the term for what became the Governor’s House or Governor’s Mansion after statehood in 1959, were done by the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Department of Treasury James Knox Taylor (1857-1929).

Taylor is responsible for more than 20 major federal buildings in the U.S. and one of his last buildings was the Alaska Governor’s Mansion. Resting on the former site of the Calhoun family dairy farm, the completed construction cost in 1913 was roughly $40,000.

“It was his job and he was prolific at it,” Juneau architect Wayne Jensen said, as he looked over the mansion’s original plans. Copies of that ink-on-linen plan were spread out on a table at Jensen, Yorba, & Lott architectural firm. Founded in 1935, the company has been involved on various projects in the mansion for at least 20 years and consults on the current work.

“It is representative of a time in history when buildings were built that way,” Jensen said. “It might fit more in the Southeastern U.S. than Juneau, the style was appropriate for federal residential buildings of that period… it’s well built and it’s served its purpose as a private residence and a public building. It is something we all should be proud of.”

The original 1912 drawings show just a little porch over the front door and a path for horse and buggy to hitch up. In the 1930’s a major renovation progressed to what is now a large canopy, or porte-cochere (carriage porch), that visiting vehicles drive under.

On the south side, three peaked dormers were replaced in 1937 with rounded dormers.

The State Historic Preservation Office determined that 1930’s fixes were still historic and thus much of the current work is done to replace those earlier fixes.

The south deck, which faces the State Office Building, was tiny in 1912 and in the 1930’s widened to cover the entire south veranda.

The four original deck columns were expanded to six at that time. It is unknown if the originals still stand.

“The all appear to be the same age,” Jensen said. “You would think if some were 20 years older they would appear different.”

Made of wood, the columns are a series of barrel-stays, thick two-by-fours angled to make a circle, sanded off and rounded into a hollow column.

The columns cracked over the years and allowed water in. The columns are being cleaned and sealed.

The general contractor on the current project, Jason Murdock, found medallions made from a type of clay or terracotta on the balcony around the third floor, reconstructed one from pieces salvaged and made a form from it. A company in Anaheim California that specializes in historic reproductions made a silicone mold and cast a series of new ones to replace the six on the side and two on opposite ends. The medallion design can be found on some trim in the mansion.

“They were basically destroyed,” Jensen said. “It is kind of neat that we were able to replicate the exact one from 1930 and make a mold out of it.”

The original building had wood siding, although the original design called for stucco; speculation as to why includes lack of money or expertise for stucco work.

Two projects are currently underway and are slated to continue through the summer and into fall.

The entire exterior of the building is being restored. The paint is being removed down to the original surface, damaged areas fixed, and then repainting from scratch in three coats.

The stucco, a cement mixture from sand instead of gravel and used in early buildings and houses from the 1910-1940, will be maintained from the mid-thirties.

“It is not a particularly good material for Southeast,” Jensen said. “But it is original design and historical. As long as it is protected and maintained, as this building has been, it is okay.”

The wood roof shingles are also being replaced, as they are every 20 to 30 years, in original cedar. During the Murkowski administration funding was not complete for that project so the shingles were painted green to extend their life.

“The weather comes up the channel and hits the south side the worst,” Jensen said. “Fortunately that is the side that has the big deck so it covers a portion of the building. The roof, of course gets hit pretty hard too.”

A new heating system is also scheduled to be installed and updated in the summer, with new boilers and a new ventilation system. The singular flag pole will be changed to dual standing poles and made “theft proof,” as the mansion’s State and U.S. flags have been stolen at various times.

Jensen’s team restored the bathrooms on the upper floors during the Tony Knowles administration’s interior renovations. They have hammered, nailed, and painted through the Frank Murkowski and Palin occupancies and now the Parnell’s. Prior fixes to that included complete rewiring during the Bill Sheffield reign.

“The common thread among all the governors and first ladies, and first gentleman as the case with the Palin’s, is that they were all interested in maintaining the building as a public resource,” Jensen said. “They care about maintaining the historic value for Alaska.”

Within the last four years, projects have included replacing all the plumbing in the building and patching and fixing walls associated with that. All the windows in the building have been restored. A new deck patio was resurfaced in ceramic tile last summer.

In the 1980’s, in the Sheffield administration, during a $2.5 million major restoration, a gold-flake seal of the State was found under multiple layers of paint near the ballroom fireplace. It is now a prominent visual attraction.

“It has been a pleasure to work on the building,” Jensen said. “It’s been a great project and fun for us. It was well-built to start with. We really didn’t find too many surprises. Certainly one that is very valuable for the history of Alaska. I have had an opportunity to go through all of the building over the years, the crawl spaces, the basement, underneath some of the stuff and clear up in the attic.”

Jensen said the crawl space under the side terrace, the basement and the refinished rough-sawn lumber flooring are still in fine shape.

“It is a well built old house,” Jensen said. “Structurally it is a sound building. It is very possible that local saw mills provided the wood.”

Early photos of Juneau show hillsides manicured by, at the time, a bustling timber industry. A historic survey of Treadwell Mines by Jensen’s team discovered that, at the turn of the century, the mine manager’s home in 1912 was bigger and more modern than the governor’s mansion.

Executive Residence Manager & Assistant to the First Lady Erika Fagerstrom has found old work orders and archives but the original builders are buried under federal and state paperwork.

“This current project was slated over four years ago,” Fagerstrom said. “During the Murkowski administration. But interior plumbing issues took precedence.”

According to Fagerstrom, in early 2007 sewage water was coming down from the third floor and leaking into the ballroom, bubbling up into the master bath and closets.

“We had some really old plumbing hidden in crawl spaces and some new plumbing,” Fagerstrom said. “We just didn’t have any plans as to where anything went.”

Main floor ceilings would have water dripping down, the 100-year-old-plus piano and original chandeliers would drip, and crystal glisten. Furniture and cabinets had to be removed. Juneau’s Silverbow Construction and Harry’s Plumbing addressed the issues.

Standing outside the mansion, ACC construction superintendant Bill Courtney of South Carolina supervised workers near the Totem Pole that will be moved next week to access part of the construction.

“No major obstacles so far,” Courtney said, standing outside the mansion. “This is my first historical work here, but back home I did a lot of historical projects. On historical projects you put things back like they was.”

On Nov. 7, 1976, 716 Calhoun Ave. was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Excluding great halls, garages, and closets, the Governor’s Mansion has 10 bathrooms, six bedrooms, and eight fireplaces. There is a reception hall, drawing room, library, dining room, office, kitchen, two pantries, and a conservatory.

Originally called an Executive Residence by the Federal Government, then the Mansion by the State, and now the Governor’s House by passers-by, whatever the large white domicile has been called over the years, it is a place of warmth and love and has hosted many galas.

Guest have included President Warren G. Harding (1923), Charles Lindbergh (1969), former President Gerald R. Ford (1989), and Edmund de Rothschild (1991) among others. Will Rogers and Wiley Post were weathered in during their ominous final flight in 1935.

Territorial governor John Troy’s daughter, Dorothy, married Fairbanks legislator George Lingo in the mansion in the mid-30’s. Jay Hammond’s daughter, Heidi, married aide and attorney Bruce Stanford in mansion nuptials in 1982. A steward has wed there, as has a commissioner during the Murkowski administration.

The Parnell’s daughter, Grace, will wed Austin Adams in the Mansion in July.

“They are working hard every day which is greatly appreciated,” Sandy Parnell said looking out the main ball room window into a construction zone. “I gave our daughter a pretty good description of what it was going to look like when I found out the extent of the scaffolding, Visqueen and everything and she is still game. They are in love.”

Vintage wedding colors in a soft pallet of shades of taupe, cream, champagne, and blue will soon add another touch of home to the mansion.

“It is a beautiful home,” the first lady said. “We love it here, we really do. Close to downtown and the street is part of the charm of Juneau. We get a nice break from home-ownership in that we are not the ones who shovel the snow, and it does take quite a team to keep a house this size running. We just want to make sure it is well maintained for the next hundred years.”

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at


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