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Up on a hill, overlooking Juneau and the Gastineau Channel sits a big white house - resembling a mansion - but the symbolism in that house, which has sat upon the hill for 100 years now, is something governors of Alaska reflect on and try and strengthen in their tenure.
Housing Alaska's dreams: 100 years on the hill 072512 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly Up on a hill, overlooking Juneau and the Gastineau Channel sits a big white house - resembling a mansion - but the symbolism in that house, which has sat upon the hill for 100 years now, is something governors of Alaska reflect on and try and strengthen in their tenure.


Photo By Sarah Day / Capital City Weekly

The Alaska String Band, featuring the Zahasky Family, plays a song for a crowd at the Alaska Governor's House Centennial.


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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Story last updated at 7/25/2012 - 2:32 pm

Housing Alaska's dreams: 100 years on the hill

Up on a hill, overlooking Juneau and the Gastineau Channel sits a big white house - resembling a mansion - but the symbolism in that house, which has sat upon the hill for 100 years now, is something governors of Alaska reflect on and try and strengthen in their tenure.

Alaska is celebrating many centennial anniversary's this year, and on July 19 people gathered at the simple, yet sophisticated Governor's House to celebrate its 100th year.

The Alaska String Band, with the Zahasky Family, played music representative of different eras and happenings of bygone times at the house, and gave historical fun facts about events at the house before each song. For example, at the end of the ceremony of the house's christening, the first lady picked out couples to stay after. The governor and his wife brought out a band and they held a dance. The Alaska String Band played a waltz and encouraged couples to dance along.

Construction started 100 years ago on the house as an "executive mansion," with $40,000 approved by Congress. It was completed in late December 1912 - back when there were no power tools, Juneau had one automobile and there was no construction equipment like cranes here, said Carol Sturgulewski, author of the newly published book "White House of the North: Stories from the Alaska Governor's Mansion" (and daughter of Gov. Frank Murkowski).

Gov. Sean Parnell and his wife Sandy spoke about the home, as well as former Gov. Bill Sheffield, former Gov. Frank Murkowski, former Juneau State Senator Clark Gruening (grandson of 14-year Gov. Ernest Gruening), and Carol Sturgulewski.

The house has undergone many changes over the years, from adding basic necessities and furniture to replacing hideous green shag carpeting, adding alabaster lamps for an anticipated visit of Princess Grace of Monacco to the most recent $2 million renovations that refreshed the house.

Governor's reflected on their impacts to the house, as well what it means to Alaska.

"We're here to celebrate the restoration of this house and what it's meant for so long," Parnell said. "People over 100 years ago had hopes, they had dreams for this land. ...This house is also built of hopes and dreams for Alaskans."

Parnell reflected on an amusing account of the early years of the house, when two governors transitioned. He said that at the end of Gov. Thomas Riggs, Jr.'s term, the house was quite bare. He told incoming Gov. Scott C. Bone to bring his own blankets, sheets, silverware...

Gruening remembered his early years at the house, as early as age three, when there was a kindergarten/day care at the top floor.

"It served as a treasure trove of adventure," Gruening said.

There was a room with old military uniforms that he and his friends would dress up in. They played ping pong in the basement and found great joy in throwing anything but laundry down the laundry chute. Gruening said that contrary to Sen. Dennis Egan's tales, Gruening only broke one thing in the house, for which he was reprimanded.

"Not for breaking a pane of glass, but for breaking the wrong pane," Gruening explained.

He was locked out of the house on a cold day with strong Taku winds, so he broke out a window and yelled for help. His father reprimanded him for not breaking the window next to the door so he could just let himself in.

About 40 years after Gruening's grandfather left office, Gov. Bill Sheffield took up residency in the house. Gov. Parnell said the house needed a lot of things done at the time, and it was Sheffield who got rid of the ugly green carpet, uncovered the Alaska District Seal above the fireplace in the ballroom, and set to work on the electrical issues.

"It's a beautiful house, a great house and you can all be proud of it," Sheffield said.

When he moved into the house, he was going to bring two little dachshunds with him, however there was metal wire fencing around the bottom of the yard that could harm the dogs if they were to wedge under it. He let it be known he wanted a large dog.

"Carl was gonna be a big dog," he said.

Sheffield installed a large dog door and had to teach the dog how to get through it. The staff, however, was not thrilled about the dog.

"One morning at 7:30 I lined up the staff and said, 'Carl and me don't feel welcome here, but we're staying,'" he said.

Sheffield spoke of the work needing to be addressed with the house.

"If you turned a switch on in the house and you put your hand on the wall, it would be hot," he said.

There also was a lack of insulation and the sheet rock had been wet so many times it had to be changed.

"It was a great project," Sheffield said. "We had a lot of help. We even had one legislator sleeping underneath my bed, trying to find fraud. He never did."

Sheffield recalled playing poker downstairs every night.

"That table is missing now," he said. "It's down in the legislator's office now."

As for the future of the house: "Governor's come along and just borrow it and use it and try and make it better," Sheffield said. "It's your house."

Gov. Frank Murkowski and wife Nancy spoke of the years of laughter and joy with their large family filling the house. Gov. Murkowski spoke of how they used to always go out and cut down their own Christmas tree each year, but one year Nancy suggested they have a Christmas tree contest.

"When you enjoy that rhubarb," Gov. Murkowski said to Parnell of the house's garden, "That's one of m more successful agriculture efforts I had."

Sturgulewski said the greatest joy of writing the book about the house is learning so many of the stories of the past 100 years. She said the fundraising done for the mansion foundation continues to restore the house to its 1912 glory, and makes the home more useful in today's era.


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