JUNEAU — An historic house in downtown Juneau that has undergone more than $500,000 in recent renovations could one day serve as a home-away-from-home for Alaska’s lieutenant governor.
Lawmakers added language to the state operating budget saying they want the Department of Natural Resources to negotiate with the governor’s office to establish the House of Wickersham State Historic Site as lodging for the lieutenant governor when he or she is in the capital city. The department manages the site.
But the Legislature did not provide the $200,000 in funding requested by Gov. Sean Parnell for the next wave of renovations aimed at making the upper floors, where the lieutenant governor would be housed more hospitable — “habitable,” according to the budget request. Caretakers live at the house year-round.
And while Parnell supports renovations to the house to ensure it’s accessible to the public, he hasn’t taken a position yet on whether the lieutenant governor should be put up there, his spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said in an email.
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell lives in Anchorage and stays at the Westmark Baranof Hotel when he’s in Juneau at a cost of about $135 a night plus per diem, his chief of staff, Michelle Toohey, has said. Travel records show Treadwell’s lodging in Juneau last year cost about $2,300. Treadwell would be happy to stay at the Wickersham House if it saves money, she has said.
Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, who proposed the budget language, believes it would. The state is already paying to heat the home at a cost of about $10,000 a year, according to the director of Alaska state parks, Ben Ellis. Egan said it makes sense to get more use out of the house, particularly during the winter when it’s closed to tourists.
“We’re not talking about a residence for the lieutenant governor. We’re talking about a room to sleep at night,” Egan said.
Having the lieutenant governor stay there also could help ensure the building continues to be maintained properly.
The white Victorian on a narrow street overlooking Gastineau Channel was home to some of Juneau’s most prominent early residents, including James Wickersham, a U.S. District Court judge and delegate to Congress who, in 1903, was part of the first attempt to climb Mount McKinley.
Wickersham bought the home in 1928 and lived in it until his death in 1939. His wife’s niece, who eventually inherited it, opened the home to the public for years. It was purchased by the state in 1984.
When Mike Eberhardt took over management of the site about 25 years ago, it was heavily used for weddings, parties and community events. Over time, renovations stopped and the site was victim to budget cuts and fell into disrepair, said Eberhardt, southeast area parks superintendent for the department’s Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.
It has taken a lot to get the building to where it is now, with the house closed for work in 2011. Visitation last year topped 2,500, up from about 1,700 in 2010.
The first floor, which serves as a museum and is open to the public during the summer, is airy and bright, with some interpretive plaques, photos and a mix of artifacts.
The building is wired for cable and telephone and the upper two floors are where the summer interpreter and caretakers stay. Neither is paid; their lodging is their compensation. If the change is made, the lieutenant governor would live on the second floor, Ellis said, but details would have to be worked out.
Currently, the second floor, reached by a narrow stairwell, has the feel of a rough-around-the-edges bed-and-breakfast. The suite includes a bathroom — tub, no shower — and a living area that includes a bed, refrigerator, microwave and couches, one of which was a hand-me-down from the Governor’s Mansion, Eberhardt said.
The caretakers — a young couple and their baby — occupy the one-bedroom third floor.
The administration estimates it would take $517,000 in additional funding over two years to complete renovations. The initial part of that request was for $200,000. But Senate Finance Committee co-chair Kevin Meyer wanted the administration to provide a total budget for the remaining work.