Headlines in the May issues of the Juneau Empire reported on the coronation of England’s new king, the winner of the Nenana Ice Classic and the flooding of villages due to ice jams in spring breakup.
The news sounds like 2023, but the stories that filled the front pages of our local newspaper occurred in May of 1937 when the Alaska Electric Light and Power Company opened its new building in downtown Juneau.
The 1937 editions of the Daily Alaska Empire told of George VI who was crowned King of England with his daughters — the Princess Royal Elizabeth, age 11, and her sister Margaret, age 7 — standing by. King Edward had abdicated the British throne and was free to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. A prize of $75,000 was awarded to the lucky winner who accurately guessed when Nenana’s Ice Classic tripod would stop the clock. Fairbanks, Fort Yukon and other Interior towns were enduring floods caused by ice dammed in rivers swollen by spring thaw. In New Jersey, the German zeppelin Hindenburg caught fire and burned. Historical context is everything.
On May 7, 1937, the Empire’s front page focused on a purely local event: the grand opening of the Alaska Electric Light and Power Company’s new building. Located at the corner of Second and Franklin Streets, the concrete Art Deco structure was being prepared to welcome crowds the following day. The electric utility had finally constructed its own custom building to house offices, and serve as a showroom for new electric appliances such as cooking ranges, irons, toasters, vacuum cleaners and wringer washing machines. A photo reveals the black-and-white checkered floor with many new labor-saving devices well displayed. Architect N. Lester Troast Company designed the building and R.J. Somers Construction Company built it beginning in May of 1936.
At the time, Winfield Pullen managed AEL&P, but its elected president was a woman named Sarah T. Corbus. She took over the company in 1933 when her husband John Parker Corbus, formerly the superintendent of the Treadwell mine, died. She presided over the corporation until 1948, taking it through the Depression, the advances of electrical home furnishings, the turbulence of World War II and the ultimate closure of Juneau’s mines in 1944.
The Corbus name has long been associated with Alaska Electric Light and Power. Two of the founders in 1896 were Corbus brothers, soon to be joined by their father. The family guided decisions through more than a century.
Juneau’s important hydroelectric power plants were built for mining operations with which the company had a strong affiliation. The Treadwell, Alaska Gastineau and Alaska Juneau mines developed several water-powered electricity generating plants. Sheep Creek at Thane and Nugget Creek adjacent to Mendenhall Glacier were warm-season sources of water and electricity, as was Gold Creek in downtown Juneau. Annex Creek on Taku Inlet and, most significantly, Salmon Creek with its curved constant-angle arch dam built in 1915, became enduring resources for Juneau that continue today.
Between 1967 and 1973, the federal government constructed Snettisham Hydro plant 44 miles south of Juneau. For many years the intense winter weather troubled the above-ground transmission lines until the stretch from Taku to Sheep Creek substation was relocated lower on Salisbury Ridge.
More change came in 1976 when AEL&P sold the Second and Franklin Streets building to Southeastern Newspapers Corp., which owned the Juneau Empire. The newspaper then moved two blocks east from its original Main Street location to occupy the Art Deco structure. A sturdy freight elevator with access on Second Street made easier work of relocating the heavy newspaper presses to the Empire’s new home. Newsroom, administration and advertising departments were on the street level, while the bulky printing equipment rumbled in the basement.
The Juneau Empire remained in this downtown location for ten years. In 1987 the newspaper moved to its own specially-built building on Channel Drive near the hospital. With more changes in the newspaper business, the Empire, now owned by Sound Publishing of Washington state, downsized its offices to Jordan Creek Mall in 2022. In May 2023, the presses were silenced, dismantled and barged out of Juneau. The news transitioned to timely online delivery and twice-weekly print publication, with papers being printed in Washington and flown to Juneau. The Southeast Alaska Health Consortium (SEARHC) owns and occupies the 3 Mile waterfront building today.
Meanwhile, AEL&P commemorated its 1993 centennial by starting construction of a new operations center, warehouse and office in Lemon Creek. Facilities were completed in 1997. The meticulously-landscaped grounds feature one of Juneau’s first electric car charging stations at the building’s entrance. Inside, artifacts from historical hydro plants, electric stations, mining operations, commuter ferries and enlarged photos tell the story of a stable business that is one of the town’s first entities.
The downtown AEL&P building transitioned again after the Empire moved out in 1987. There were several interim occupants in the Second Street portion, but Franklin Street neighbor Foggy Mountain Shop was the stable anchor that grew the longest and strongest until it relocated to Seward Street in 2022.
AEL&P was sold to AVISTA, a Spokane utility corporation, in 2014. At that time, Bill and Katie Corbus gifted the Juneau Community Foundation $48 million to help people in need, leaving a philanthropic legacy of sparking change with several funds, including the Juneau Hope Endowment Fund.
The Art Deco architectural style is characterized by sleek, simple lines accented with geometric patterns. This can be seen in the ornamentation on the exterior roofline and five continuous concrete lines running above the canopy. The company name is recessed in cast concrete and enhanced with contrasting paint in a type style indicative on the 1920s-1930s. Inside, the original ornamental pattern is retained on collars of several concrete pillars.
A new life for the building began in 2015 when Maura Selenak and Brandon Howard opened Amalga Distillery. When the couple was searching for a good place to house their distillery and tasting room, they discovered the one feature that superseded others to make the 1937 AEL&P building the ideal location: the big freight elevator.
“That elevator made this business possible,” Howard said. “There’s nothing else like it in downtown.” The critical element that relocated the Empire’s printing presses is now prized by another local business.
Amalga’s operation requires many large pieces of specialized equipment. With a 10,000-square-foot basement and a spacious 8,000-pound-capacity elevator, Selenak and Howard had space for the barrel room, mash room, canning and bottling machines, coolers, and freezers. Many of the freezers are filled with recently harvested local botanicals such as spruce tips and rhubarb. These will be blended with citrus and other elements to create the specialty cocktails, and nonalcoholic beverages that are served upstairs drawn from taps or sold in cans.
The public tasting room occupies the former electric appliance showroom. Gone are the washing machines and toasters. In their place, a sleek polished concrete bar dominates the floor. Three long communal tables invite patrons to engage in conversation with other customers, creating the welcoming, comfortable atmosphere the couple envisioned.
Street-level views also reveal the copper and steel “pot still,” manufactured in Kentucky, and a large wood-stave fermentation tank. Both are functional elements for creating Amalga Distillery’s whiskey. Contemporary designs on bottles and cans carry through the sleek style of the tasting room decor.
One historical photo from the building’s beginning is duct taped to a big support pillar near the serving bar. It shows the unfinished concrete structure with a patient dog sitting on the adjacent street corner.
“We keep that photo to honor the beautiful bones of this building,” Howard said.
Downtown Juneau is filled with history and stories that are kept alive and vital by new entrepreneurs starting up in places that were once the pride of other enterprises. Preservation requires investment and appreciation, both inside and outside. Those qualities are epitomized in the 1930s AEL&P building.
Special thanks to AEL&P’s staff for their generous assistance with historical photos and company history.
• Laurie Craig is an artist, advocate and avid researcher of Juneau’s historical treasures. Rooted in Community is a series of short articles, published in the Empire on the third weekend of each month, focusing on unique buildings in Juneau’s Downtown Historic District and the present-day businesses (and people) that occupy them. This work is supported by the Downtown Business Association. This article has been moved in front of the Empire’s paywall.