Golden dome would make splendid capitol

Posted: Friday, November 19, 2004

Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

It goes without saying that Alaska's proposed modern capitol must reflect its pioneering past and therefore Russian architecture. But with architects from England, Spain, Germany and New York among those lining up to compete in Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho's design contest, maybe somebody should go ahead and put it out there.

Build Alaska a towering beacon with a giant golden onion dome.

I anticipate being called a commie pinko. Those who recognize that the Cold War is over may object on the grounds that Imperial Russia wasn't so nice in its administration of Alaska - or that the Russian bulbiform is just plain Byzantine.

Think, though, where Russian colonization originated. It started with private initiative in pursuit of natural riches; the very essence of Alaskana. Russian adventurers, plunderers, dreamers and ne'er-do-wells poured into the Great Land on the tracks of fur traders, just as their American counterparts would in the gold and oil rushes after Russia sold the territory. The architecture soon followed the Russians, and it crafted public buildings that to this day are Alaska's most admired. In Sitka, Juneau, Kenai and Kodiak, everybody loves the onion dome. Forge one from gold and you've got the spirit of Alaska.

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Visit Juneau's capitol design competition Web site at

If the idea offends because it conjures images of a colonial economy, I ask what Alaska has now. In fact, in homage to Outside oil and seafood interests and the Alaskans they employ, I propose a new hatchery salmon run up artificial waterfalls (depicting our perseverance, in season), delivered from Gastineau Channel across Egan Drive to our new Capitol Hill by a fish passage made of trans-Alaska oil pipeline parts.

One symbolic advantage of the onion dome is that without blurring church and state it can stand for the sort of multicultural congregation that the Russian Orthodox church came to engender.

And anyway, what else did you have in mind for a new capitol? The big white dome and columns that most other states have mimicked? If that's the case, I'd rather stay with the current post office-style Capitol from territorial days. At least it's different, if not Alaskan at a glance.

As the city has chosen Telephone Hill - above the Goldbelt Hotel and below the State Office Building - as the place to pitch a new capitol to the rest of the state, it will be highly visible throughout Juneau's hub and to ocean visitors. Something spectacular is in order. While it will stand apart from much of the capital city, it will have to compete with the towering sheer cliffs and snow of Mount Juneau behind it. That's one of the first observations that capitol historian and restorationist William Seale made when he visited Juneau earlier this year as the mayor tried to mold a vision for a new seat of government.

"I think it's going to have to be a bold building," Seale told the Empire during his visit from Washington, D.C.

If you marry that to the notion that Alaska's capitol ought to reflect its people, their history and architecture, there are few ways to go. Alaska has lovely cedar-shake homes up and down the coast, and it has log cabins, sod roofs and outhouses aplenty, but none of those really inspires so much. Sorry, America, but we do not have igloos.

Please, German architects: no glassy monoliths. The whole point in building this thing is to keep Anchorage from taking the capital, not to bring Anchorage here.

For grandiose architecture that stirs the imagination in an Alaska direction, only the Russian Orthodox church and the totem-adorned Tlingit clanhouse will do. The clanhouse, while another fantastic idea for a capitol, isn't going to stand out like a bulb of Alaskan gold.

Ultimately, it is the simple functionality of the Russian Orthodox church that makes it a fitting model for our exercise. Typically there aren't any seats in one. Name me a more attractive feature for a house of legislation.

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