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'Crummy' old buildings, and those who keep them

Posted: September 22, 2013 - 12:06am

This week, the Alaskan Hotel turned 100 years old. When Marguerite Franklin sold the building to my parents in 1977, there were leaks that ran clear from the roof into the basement. Since then, my family has replaced most of the plumbing, wiring, and appurtenances in the entire building. There has been a strong push for urban renewal and gentrification over the last two generations that has caused our community to favor relocation and demolition over restoration of older structures. Part of this comes from today’s throw-away culture, and a tendency to scoff at things that aren’t new and shiny. To restore something old requires a great deal of care and expense; it’s much cheaper just to wreck it and start all over.

Next week, someone very special is coming up from New York to do a show on the Alaskan Hotel. When my family bought the building, it had many enemies. Like today, there was no lack of culturally-challenged bystanders who would have just as soon seen it torn down. Instead of a pat on the back for preserving the original purpose and character of the Alaskan, the owners have received a volley of mostly ad hominem attacks and ruthless, non-constructive commentaries. Most of them seem to blame the owners for the condition of the business and the building, which is ironic because the neither would even be in existence today if it weren’t for their hard work and dedication.

In thanks for her 36 years of preserving one of Juneau’s gems, my mother gets comments like, “Bettye Adams, the owner, has the money to completely fix everything but is too big of a cheapskate.” These comments come from people who have nothing better to do than entertain themselves with half-truths and libel, and they were made without ever considering the tremendous patience and humility that it takes to preserve an old building. That particular commentator further perjured himself by misquoting her son, and casting aspersions at another example of local historic architecture.

Aside from such slanderous and vituperative commentaries against my parents, the hotel is criticized for actually being a Victorian hotel. For example, shared bathrooms are considered a nuisance, or, as one commentator put it, a “public health hazard.” The shared bathrooms, along with some of the other “out-dated amenities,” are part of what make the Alaskan Hotel a genuine time capsule. When guests come, they get a taste of what a hotel was like 100 years ago. Back then, the Alaskan Hotel was considered luxurious, not because it had private bathrooms, but because it had bathrooms to speak of! It also had a 1.5 kilowatt wireless station to signal the ferry boats over in Douglas before there was a bridge. That later became the first telephone number in Juneau (586-1000). Miners used to come and winter there because it had steam heat.

If you want a modern hotel with a private bathroom in every room, there are plenty; however, you cannot purchase time. Those things that are kept the way they have been for a long time somehow obtain a value that is not monetary. Through the maelstrom of architectural change that has occurred in Juneau’s history, the Alaskan Hotel appears, throughout the ages, as if she were superimposed in time. When you look at an old photograph of her façade, you can see how most of the town has changed around her, yet the Alaskan Hotel remains the same. Someday all of these old buildings will have been torn down or repurposed. Won’t anyone ever wonder what a real hotel was like when the real ones can only be found in books? The comments directed at my family and our legacy say far more about those who write them. Such commentators not only obfuscate the true purpose of having such a forum on the website, but they have also divorced themselves from the truth. The Alaskan Hotel just completed a century. To have such a gem should be a source of pride, but it almost seems like Juneau just wants to look the other way.

• Joshua Adams is the proud son of Mike and Bettye Adams, preservers and restorers of the Alaskan Hotel.

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