In Juneau, the importance of the Alaska Governor’s House is well known, representing the significance to the city of being Alaska’s capital, even before there was a state of Alaska, or even a Capitol.
But it’s nice to have that importance reaffirmed by a group such as the American Society of Civil Engineers, which has named the house an Alaska Landmark of significant engineering achievement.
The group’s designation shows “the significance of this house to the history of Alaska,” said the house’s current occupant, Gov. Bill Walker. He was speaking at the dedication ceremony for a new plaque Wednesday afternoon that saw sunny skies, but frigid temperatures.
The house is one of two Alaska Landmarks, along with the Parks Highway connecting Southcentral Alaska with Fairbanks and the Interior. The house was first designated and named an Alaska Landmark in 1989, said Carl Uchtyil, a member of the society and Juneau’s port director. Following extensive recent renovations, the deteriorated original plaque has been replaced and relocated near Calhoun Avenue where it will be more visible to the public to highlight the building’s importance.
The historic house was built in 1912 in the style of Federal Period Greek Revival, Uchytil said. The original house included four Corinthian columns, later increased to six in a subsequent renovation.
Architect and historian Wayne Jensen, a top expert on the building’s history, said the house was the first building constructed by the federal government for the newly designated Territory of Alaska and helped create the “bright future that would eventually lead to statehood.”
Governors at the time were federal, not state, officials, so the federal government was responsible for housing them and paid the $40,000 construction cost.
“They were appointed by the federal government, so they were federal officials, so this was a federal building, along with the state Capitol, which was also a federal buliding,” Jensen said
A local newspaper at the time called it the costliest house in Alaska, and said there was “surely not a prettier home anywhere in the west,” Jensen said.
Attending the ceremony was Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau, who represents the district in which the house is located and who also is an engineer.
Not present was Sen. Dennis Egan, who lived in the house when his father was governor.
Jensen showed that while telling stories about Dennis Egan is fun when he is present, it is even more fun when he’s not there to defend himself.
“The attic still has remnants of the fire that was supposed to have been started by the son of Gov. (Bill) Egan, now Sen. Dennis Egan,” Jensen said. “I think some of those stories are probably embellished, but they’re really good stories and I like repeating them.”
Jensen also cleared up the name of the building, which is “Governor’s House” not “Governor’s Mansion.”
It originally was designated “executive mansion” by U.S. Treasury Department architects in the nation’s capital, but that’s not what Alaskans wanted, he said.
“The term must have been a little pretentious for Alaskans, because then-Gov. Walter Clark, who was there at the dedication, proclaimed that in keeping with the name of the president’s home as ‘The White House,’ this would be known as the ‘Governor’s House,’” he said.
Jensen said Alaskans have taken to the prominent house, as shown by the turnout each year when governors welcome visitors for a holiday open house.
“I’ve stood in line many a cold day, colder than this, around the block waiting to get in for the holiday season,” he said. Visitors are welcomed with hot cider, cookies and Christmas carols.
As Jensen spoke, Commissioner of Transportation Marc Luiken checked his phone and said the temperature was 26 degrees. “That must be at the airport where they don’t have this wind,” he said.
The ceremony was opened and closed by Juneau high school student Lydia Smith singing first the national anthem and then the Alaska Flag Song.
“It’s nice to have this large a group in front of our house and no one is carrying a sign,” Gov. Walker said, before inviting visitors inside for a tour.