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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Kaana Villanuev, 10, sneaks a peek through the library's door window during a centennial celebration tour of the Governor's House on Thursday.

History celebrated at Governor's House

Alaska governors, residents celebrate the home's 100th anniversary

Posted: July 20, 2012 - 1:12am
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Juneau residents gather on the back lawn for speeches during the centennial celebration of the Governor's House on Thursday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Juneau residents gather on the back lawn for speeches during the centennial celebration of the Governor's House on Thursday.

Former governors Bill Sheffield and Frank Murkowski joined Gov. Sean Parnell in celebrating something on which all of the state’s leaders can agree:

Alaskans should treasure the Alaska Governor’s House, now celebrating its 100-year anniversary, and with recent renovations that should enable it to serve the state for many more years.

The building of the house in 1912 was a sign of confidence in the future of Alaska, which was just about to become a territory and was still decades away from becoming a state in 1959.

“They believed in Alaska, just like we believe in Alaska,” Parnell said.

Author Carol Sturgulewski, who wrote “White House of the North: Stories from the Alaska Governor’s Mansion” settled the question of whether it was a “House” or a “Mansion.”

Her book, five years in the works, details the history of some of the house colorful and charming, including former First Lady Bella Hammond, wife of Gov. Jay Hammond, 1974-1982, being mistaken for the gardener, and the kids of Gov. Mike Stepovich, 1957-1958 climbing the totem pole on the wall of the house.

And when Gov. Tony Knowles, 1994-2002 was there, visiting basketball teams were known to spend the night on the ballroom floor.

Sturgulewski, daughter of Gov. Frank Murkowski, 2002-2006, told the large crowd gathered on the house’s north lawn that they were lucky to have dodged the rain for the celebration, but wouldn’t have been so lucky had they been there in 1912.

That was the rainiest year on record for Juneau, she said, though she acknowledged there were fewer years on record at the time.

“This yard was a muddy, messy construction zone,” she said.

At the time Juneau had a single car, she said, and her book tells of much construction work had to be done by hand.

“There were no cranes, there were no bulldozers, there were no power tools or heavy equipment,” she said.

Not everything made it into the book, despite the years of research. People continued to bring here anecdotes and photos even after the publication deadline.

“Literally two weeks after we wrapped up the book, here comes a picture of Bill Egan in his Santa Claus suite in the dining room,” she said. Bill Egan was governor the first time from 1969-1966, and then again from 1970-1974.

Some of the stories were about other mansion staff, the unheralded current and former workers who have kept the building running for 100 years, and even the house’s many canine occupants.

Former Gov. Bill Sheffield, 1982-1986, said when he moved to Juneau he got a big dog, Carl, from Bob Poe, after having previously owned only small dogs.

From Spenard Builder’s Supply he got a doggie door and had it installed. Then, he said, he had to teach Carl to use it.

“I’m glad the press wasn’t around to watch that,” he said.

And some of the occupants might have been metaphorical.

“There might have been a legislator sleeping under my bed for a year trying to find fraud. Of course, he didn’t find any,” Sheffield said, an allusion to the impeachment inquiry he battled as governor.

Clark Gruening, grandson of Gov. Ernest Gruening, 1939-1953, took to the microphone to dispute less serious allegations by Sen. Dennis Egan that he’d broken unidentified items while he lived there.

Gruening said the only thing he broke was a window, and he did so intentionally when he got locked out of the house in the middle of winter.

Gruening said he got reprimanded for that, but only for having broken the wrong window. His dad told him that if he’d instead broken the pane next to the doorknob he could have let himself back in, instead of having to yell for help.

First Lady Sandy Parnell introduced Gruening, but advised him beforehand that he didn’t need to fear retribution for his childhood capers.

“We won’t hold you accountable for any antics you did as a child,” she said. “It was decades ago.”

Murkowski told the crowd said that when he was living in the house, he knew how special it was.

“It was a real privilege to serve as governor, and to reside in this wonderful house,” he said.

He, too, referred to some rocky times in his term as governor.

“There’s a few legislators who you would just as soon forget, and I’ve forgotten them,” he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey or at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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