Appreciating the Capitol's beauty

Posted: Friday, May 14, 2004

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

One of the most beautiful buildings in Alaska is the Alaska State Capitol. As Bob De Armond said in his article "Out of the History Cache," in May 31, 1967:

"A capital is the town or city in which is located the seat of government of a state or nation, according to Webster and other authorities on word usage, while a capitol (with an o) is the building in which meetings of the legislative assembly of the government is held."

Some historians ask if only the stones could tell the story. In the case of Alaska's Capitol, the question would be if only the bricks and Tokeen marble could talk.

I remember as a grade schooler, when class got out at 3 in the afternoon, walking across the street to sit in the legislative chambers and listen to the debates. One incentive was that my mother, Thelma Engstrom, was a representative in 1947 and 1948. Other Juneauites in the Legislature then were Sen. L. P. Dawes and Rep. G.E. Almquist, Rep. Anita Garnick and Rep. Steve Vukovich.

Another great place to visit in the building back then was the Territorial Museum. The curator was Ed Keithahn.

The two most notable exhibits for visitors was a captured Japanese 37 millimeter anti-tank gun, used on Attu Island in 1943, that the kids liked to man by elevating the barrel with a set of gears, and the other was a giant stuffed moose, which came from the 1904 St. Louis World Fair.

Keithahn said that the cannon took "precedence over everything else in the museum."

The cannon is still in the collection of the Alaska State Museum and is occasionally displayed. The moose was worn out by time and affectionate pats, so it had to be discarded. Those were the days when the Capitol was little changed from the first days of construction.

The building was designed in the offices of James A. Wetmore, supervising architect for the federal government, and constructed by N.P. Severin Co. of Chicago. Ground was broken on Sept. 18, 1929, completed on Feb. 2, 1931, and formally dedicated on Feb. 14, 1931.

The building is made of brick-faced reinforced concrete. The lower facade is of Indiana limestone. The four columns of the portico and the interior trim are of light and dark Tokeen marble from the quarries at Tokeen on Price of Wales Island.

When I worked for the Territorial Legislature in 1957, it was much the same. Though back then we sometimes lacked equipment which would seem essential today.

We could print out single pages of the bills. But we had no collating equipment, so a half dozen or so of us stood around a big table and walked in a circle picking up the single pages in order. When we had collected the whole bill, we stapled it together.

When I served in the state House in 1965, the hall was the same as it was in 1931, and the procedure was unchanged. When the speaker called for the roll, the members' names were sounded alphabetically with each member saying aye or nay. This is how it is still done in the U.S. Senate, although the federal House votes electronically.

Big changes occurred under the speakership of Mike Gravel in 1966 and 1967. The House and Senate chambers were transformed into modern, convenient and handsome rooms. Electronics were added, so that members were able to vote by moving a switch at their desks.

Under Gov. Walter Hickel the governor's office was remodeled. So the Capitol has kept pace with the times.

It is a beautiful structure. Stand outside in the late afternoon sun and see the bricks glow with a soft reddish radiance. And look with awe at the massive pillars of Tokeen marble that could form the entrance to a Roman or Grecian temple in times long past.

It is a unique capitol, distinguished by its character as few other state capitols are. Many of them are various copies of the national Capitol at Washington, D.C. They all mostly use white marble, probably imported. But we used our native materials - the mottled shades of dark gray and green from the quarries of Tokeen. It has a magical sound.

Sometimes the best things in life are right under your nose - things you've always taken for granted and never stopped to appreciate for their beauty and timelessness.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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