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Seward statue to be built across from Capitol building

Local historian and re-enactor John Venables spearheads project

Posted: October 24, 2013 - 11:08pm
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John Venables, center, dressed up as William Henry Seward watches as Assemblymember Mary Becker turns over a shovel of dirt during a ceremonial groundbreaking Thursday for a Seward statue in the Dimond Courthouse Plaza.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
John Venables, center, dressed up as William Henry Seward watches as Assemblymember Mary Becker turns over a shovel of dirt during a ceremonial groundbreaking Thursday for a Seward statue in the Dimond Courthouse Plaza.

Plans to erect a life-size statue of William Henry Seward in Juneau began Thursday with a ceremonial groundbreaking at the Dimond Courthouse Plaza, the site where the sculpture will be built.

“This is phase one,” John Venables, the local historian and re-enactor spearheading the project told the supporters gathered at the site. He was costumed as Seward for the event. “Phase two will start in six months when we celebrate Seward’s Day holiday, March 30.”

No ground was actually broken, but the event was held to celebrate the first real benchmark in making the statue a reality — the state Department of Administration approved the plaza as the proposed site. To mark the occasion, the 25-plus members of the hard-hat wearing crowd took turns turning over soil in a planter box with spray-painted-gold shovels.

“Build the statue, build the statue,” the group chanted as they raised foam hammers in the air and posed for pictures.

Though the process is just getting started, the idea for the statue has been long in the making. Venables, the creator of the educational program Alaska Living History which promotes notable Alaska historical figures, said it began when he was in a bookstore three years ago and struck up a conversation with the store manager.

“We both ended up agreeing that there should be a life-size statue of William Henry Seward somewhere in Juneau,” he said in an interview. “And so I took it from there.”

Venables reached out to his friends to rally support for the idea. Many of them, including City Assembly members, state employees and staffers for legislators, turned out Thursday for the groundbreaking.

“It’s a great project to honor a historical figure who is important to Alaska’s history and our civic life,” assembly member Jesse Kiehl told the Empire.

“I think this is a great location,” added Wayne Jensen, a partner in the architecture firm Jensen Yorba Lott, Inc. “Right in front of the Capitol.”

The statue is intended to be completed four years from now to mark the 150th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase in 1867. Seward finalized the contract to purchase Alaska from Russia when he was Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State.

Venables imagines the statue will be five feet and six-and-a-half inches tall — Seward’s height — sitting atop a four-foot-tall pedestal. Assembly member Mary Becker, one of the group’s organizers, said they are still working out important details, such as how much it will cost and who will sculpt it.

“It’ll be fantastic to honor William Henry Seward,” Becker said. “John Venables has his project, and we think it’s a great idea, and we want to support it.”

Choosing a location and getting it approved was a big step forward in the process, said Brenda Hewitt, a staffer for North Pole Representative Doug Isaacson and the former head of United Way. Other proposed locations were by the waterfront on city property or next to the new State Library, Archives and Museum building.

The site required approval from the Alaska Department of Administration since the courthouse plaza is on state land.

“Anything that goes on state land, we have to have approval,” said Gareth Jones of the state’s Division of General Services, a branch within the administration department. “We just went through the various channels and the Department of Administration said, ‘This sounds like a great idea, let’s do it.’”

Venables said in his speech that he hopes the statue will be a popular spot for tourists to visit when they come to Juneau in the summertime. The statue will be located just a few feet away from the popular bronze bear sculpture, “The Windfall Fisherman.”

“This will be a great photo op for a million cruise passengers coming to Alaska and other guests and our visitors and residents,” said Venables.

Now that the site is approved, the project’s supporters will begin fundraising. Venables said he hopes the pedestal will be built in the next six months and that will be the next benchmark to celebrate.

“We’re on a journey here,” he said.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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