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Architect presents 'A History of the Capitol Building'

Breakfast event at Rockwell starts second day of centennial

Posted: March 4, 2013 - 11:36am  |  Updated: March 5, 2013 - 1:07am
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The completed Alask capitol building in 1930.   Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection,ASL-P297-329
Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection,ASL-P297-329
The completed Alask capitol building in 1930.

The legislative centennial celebration at Rockwell in downtown Juneau entered its second day with a presentation by a local architect Monday morning on the history of the Alaska State Capitol.

Wayne Jensen, president of Jensen Yorba Lott Inc., the Juneau architectural firm that is the contractor for upcoming restoration work on the Capitol, spoke to a group of current and former legislators, a few legislative staffers, and interested members of the public over breakfast. His lecture on the Capitol’s history was accompanied by a slideshow of historical photographs and layout plans.

The construction of the Capitol, which was originally known as the Federal and Territorial Building, began in 1929 and was completed in early 1931, in time for the 10th Territorial Legislature to meet there that spring.

What is now Rockwell — formerly known as the Elks Lodge — was among the Legislature’s meeting places prior to 1931, and was the site at which the 1st Territorial Legislature convened in March 1913. For that reason, it was selected to host legislative centennial events that started on Sunday and will continue through Tuesday.

Jensen described a lengthy process leading up to the modern-day Capitol’s construction. Congressional appropriations for the lot and building came in fits and starts, and a popular effort that raised money for the purchase and deeding of the lot dissolved into frustration as the federal government, distracted by World War I and other events, left the land undeveloped for years.

One photo that Jensen showed in his slideshow was taken of a sign put up at the corner of 4th and Main streets in 1920.

“When I first saw this sign, I thought, ‘Well, this is great — this is, you know, announcing the construction of the new building,’” Jensen said. “But as you read the whole sign … it turns out to be a frustration with the pace of federal government. The last sentence says, ‘Good faith as well as public necessity now demand the erection of the building.’”

When the building was designed and built in the late 1920s and early 1930s, it was in a then-popular style, Jensen said.

“The building is an Art Deco-style architectural style, which is kind of an eclectic style,” Jensen said. “One of the features that it has are geometric patterns and some bold colors, particularly in the ornamentation. Some of those are hard to see until you get into looking at the detail of the building.”

In addition to the photographs showing the undeveloped site, the building under construction and some early events in which it was featured, including the July 4, 1959 raising of the 49-star flag in Juneau after Alaska gained statehood, Jensen also showed some “assignment drawings” parceling out space in the Federal and Territorial Building.

The first floor of the building originally housed the post office, which Jensen suggested explains why the Capitol has both a “ground floor” and a “first floor,” unlike many other buildings in Alaska.

The Territorial Museum took up the west wing of the second floor, where the Senate chamber is now. Space for the Senate was set aside in what is now the House speaker’s office.

On the fifth floor, which is now best known as the floor on which the House and Senate Finance committees meet, there was a courtroom and perhaps even a holding room for the accused, Jensen said.

Jensen also displayed a picture of the Capitol’s cornerstone, on which a set of names is engraved.

“There’s been a lot of talk — yesterday in particular — about the impact of the federal government on the territory,” Jensen said. “I think this is really a telling cornerstone that goes to show really what that meant. The person with the largest letters at the top of the cornerstone is the secretary of the treasury, an appointed … federal official. Second to that is a federal employee, the architect working for the secretary of the treasury. And at the bottom of the list, in the … smallest font, is the territorial governor, George Parks.”

Jensen took questions after his presentation, fielding one on the plans for the Capitol’s restoration.

“The idea is to undertake a three- or four-year process of upgrading the building seismically and upgrading the structural envelope of the building at the same time,” Jensen said.

The heating system will also be replaced and the exterior of the building will be restored, with water damage that has occurred over time being ameliorated as well, according to Jensen. Work is set to start this summer and will take place between legislative sessions, he said.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, sitting at a table with Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, asked about retaining architectural styles.

“What kind of procedure do you have now,” he said, “to ensure architectural consistency inside the building?”

“I think it’s just a realization now that this is a very historic building, and to maintain that,” Jensen said. “Through the whole industry, there’s just a lot more emphasis on maintaining those historic features. The building’s lasted 80 years now, still in good shape. … With the structural reinforcing and the work on the exterior, it should last another 80 years without any problem.”

Jensen said most of the pictures he showed came from public sources, like the Juneau-Douglas City Museum or the Alaska State Library and Historical Collections.

Jensen’s talk, entitled “A History of the Capitol Building,” was the first of four events to be held for the legislative centennial at Rockwell on Monday.

A panel to discuss “Leading Women in Alaska’s Political History” was Monday’s lunch program. A reception program on “Members and Accomplishments of the First Alaska Territorial Legislature,” presented by historian Beverly Beeton, and a reenactment by local actors and legislative staff of the First Territorial Legislature’s convening and the passage of women’s suffrage took place in the evening.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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