The story behind Juneau's 'iron' throne

If you build a towering Iron Throne sculpture out of more than one hundred wooden pallets and set it on fire on a public beach, the Internet is bound to notice.


Dean Guaneli and Paul Voelckers discovered that when a picture of their 23-foot-tall pop culture creation — an homage to the HBO TV show Game of Thrones, based on the book series by George R. R. Martin — went viral after it was posted to Reddit on the Fourth of July holiday.

The image, posted by Reddit user “Alaskaty” with the caption, “So this is burning tonight in Juneau, Alaska,” has since attracted a half a million hits on the social media site, and also spread on Imgur and Facebook.

Game of Thrones fans didn’t miss a beat in their 220 or so comments to share thoughts about the picture, which shows Voelckers’ son Matthew sitting on the throne.

“That should be the greatest fire the north has ever seen,” one commenter wrote.

“The north got their own throne,” another joked.

“All hail the great Pallet Throne,” someone commented.

“WHAT did that poor boy do to deserve this?!?” another said, in reference to the younger Voelkers, who apparently looked like a sacrificial lamb.

The Empire caught up with Guaneli recently to learn more about what went into making the impressive structure, which Empire photographer Marlena Sloss captured going up in flames the night of July 3.

Come to find out — and no surprise here — it wasn’t their first pallet project creation. In fact, it’s a quarter of a century tradition.

Guaneli and Voelckers have been neighbors on Douglas Island for 30 years and have been building a bonfire on the beach before the city’s Fourth of July firework show for about 25 years. Over the years, the bonfires grew bigger and were given themes.

“We just refer to it as the Third of July bonfire,” Guaneli said in an interview. “We’ve always done it with the Voelckers family because they live just down the beach from us, so we always celebrate things together. Twenty-five years ago, when his kids were really little, we’d gather things on the beach for a little bonfire. We got more and more elaborate and built bigger and bigger, and people up and down the beach knew we would build something. It kind of draws a crowd, so there’s all this pressure on us each year to come up with a better design.”

In years past, Guaneli, a retired assistant attorney general for the state of Alaska, and Voelkers, an architect, have built the Roman Pantheon, Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building — complete with a King Kong on the top, gripping a blonde doll — out of the wooden pallets. They’ve also done local icons as well, such as the pump house at Sandy Beach.

Last year, they built a crowned Statue of Liberty head, a reference to the (spoiler alert) closing scene in the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes, where the statute is buried halfway in the sand. In 2011, they did the Eye of Sauron for Lord of the Rings fans.

“We try to make it very light-hearted and something that is iconic and recognizable,” Guaneli said.

Every year when June rolls around, the two begin thinking about what the theme should be. The idea for this year’s Game of Thrones tribute, Guaneli believes, came several months ago from Voelkers’ youngest son’s fiancé, Catherine, representing the 20-something crowd that probably makes up the bulk of GOT fandom.

“Paul and I are trying to pass this tradition on to the younger generation, and his sons are now in their late 20s and early 30s,” Guaneli said. “I think that age group is enthralled with Game of Thrones, and the idea just kind of took hold. It seemed like the kind of structure that’s doable, that’s buildable.”

A few volunteers in trucks drove around collecting wooden pallets from a variety of construction sites before July 3. Most of the pallets were destined for the dump and workers were happy to hand them over, Guaneli noted.

Then, a few days before the big day, a group of eight or nine volunteers hauled the pallets — 152 this year compared to 110 last year — down the stairs to the beach. There’s about 93 stairs, Guaneli said. (Yes, he counted.) It takes about half a day.

All the building takes place in one day, on July 3, the day of the city’s Fourth of July fireworks show. Guaneli and Voelkers begin around 9 a.m. and go until about 9 p.m. More volunteers, many of whom are architects at Voelkers’ firm, show up throughout the day to help.

“I would say we had a crew of about eight people working an average of six to seven hours,” Guaneli said. “It was a lot of ... hours.”

The structure in this case, the Iron Throne, is actually stacks of wooden pallet that gets narrower closer to the top, like a tiered wedding cake, and serves as a staircase to the top. At the top is a level platform upon which the throne sits.

The throne is easily recognizable by the multiple bladed swords — strips of thin plywood that were pointed at the end — that jut out from the back of the chair and rise skyward, their length dwarfing the person sitting in the throne. A ladder in front of the structure let people climb straight to the top and sit on the throne. And many did. The Iron Throne often referenced in the books and TV show was made from swords.

“People just couldn’t help themselves,” Guaneli said happily. “They wanted to go sit up on the throne and get their picture taken. At least two dozen people did that. It was actually a pretty big throne, and people climbed up. It was very sturdy and safe and all that, and then they’re there for the lighting of it. These things usually go up pretty quickly and burns quickly, and, I don’t know, maybe 20 minutes later, everyone’s gone. The show’s over.”

Before it burns, the builders make sure the structure is safe to climb on by ensuring its base is level, cross bracing pallets, and nailing and screwing everything together.

“We’ve got to climb on it ourselves just to build it, so we want it pretty steady,” Guaneli said.

Voelkers is in charge of building the crowning piece to be placed atop the sculpture, akin to a star on a Christmas tree. This year it was the throne, last year it was the Eye of Sauron, and before that, the statue of liberty’s spikes on her crown.

“He’s a good artist, so that’s what his role always ends up being,” Guaneli said.

Lifting the artistic piece to the top of the structure is usually one of the hardest things. Now, they try to build it in pieces so it’s not so heavy. The throne, for instance, was built in five or six different pieces and then assembled at the top of the platform.

“It made it much easier and it was much less nerve-wracking putting it up there,” Guaneli said.

One-hundred-fifty-two is the most pallets they have ever used to build one of their bonfire creations. They will not try to top that record in the future because of safety concerns, Guaneli said.

The fire department is aware of the annual bonfire tradition and has never deemed it a fire hazard or taken any action to quell the activity. Capital City Fire/Rescue Fire Marshal Dan Jager advised that fire can be unpredictable and dangerous and he doesn’t recommend they build it any higher.

The structure is usually ignited at about 10 p.m., an hour or two before the fireworks. Then, the crew that toiled all day long building the bonfire sits around the embers, warming themselves as they ooh-and-aww at the fireworks display.

“We don’t want to be competing with the fireworks,” Guaneli said. “By 11 at least, it’s just a pile of embers.”

When asked how he feels about that — all his hard work and effort going up in flames in a matter of minutes — Guaneli expressed mixed feelings.

“Sometimes, I wonder why we go through all the effort, but everybody seems to enjoy it so much,” he said. “It became a tradition, it’s fun. We get a bunch of people together and people bring out food, and we have lunch and sometimes dinner, and keep working. It’s one of those things, I am completely exhausted at the end and end up spending the next day sleeping. I think what we always end up saying is, ‘Oh wow, it was a really successful year.’ And then I think, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we going to do next year?’”

The pressure may already be mounting for Guaneli and Voelckers to top this year’s bonfire, but until then, Guaneli said he’s going to enjoy reading the comments on Reddit.

“Some of them are really hilarious,” he said, pointing out one that called the structure “unpalatable.” “I was surprised that it got so many hits.”


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