Mendenhall Tower Apartments, the tallest building in Juneau, seen during a rainy morning Feb. 22. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Mendenhall Tower Apartments, the tallest building in Juneau, seen during a rainy morning Feb. 22. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The building that saved Juneau

Mendenhall Tower Apartments and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Adequate housing has often been a challenge in Juneau, but in the late 1940s it became a matter of economic survival. After World War II Juneau faced a desperate situation. The Alaska-Juneau Gold Mine had closed in 1944, leaving Juneau’s primary industry gone. Federal military investments dried up once the fighting was over in 1945. Statehood was still a dozen years in the future.

Then a lifeline was tossed Juneau’s way. But it was not guaranteed: Juneau could have lost it all if not for fast-acting civic leaders who stepped in at the crucial moment.

In 1948 the U.S. Coast Guard offered either Juneau or Ketchikan the chance to become headquarters for the 17th Coast Guard District. The offer came with the requirement for 14,000 square feet of office space for 50 personnel and sufficient housing for Coast Guard families. Juneau people were determined to win the bid. In November of 1948, Juneau succeeded as long as the town could meet the requirements by July 1, 1949. Eight months.

The old log cabin soda works and brewery was a well-known early structure at the corner of Main Street and Third Street. It was torn down in 1914, having also served as a church and school. Today the Community Building is located on the site. It was built in the late 1940s for the U.S. Coast Guard’s 17th District headquarters. (ASL-P87-0966)

The old log cabin soda works and brewery was a well-known early structure at the corner of Main Street and Third Street. It was torn down in 1914, having also served as a church and school. Today the Community Building is located on the site. It was built in the late 1940s for the U.S. Coast Guard’s 17th District headquarters. (ASL-P87-0966)

Working together, local residents developed a brilliant plan. The Chamber of Commerce formed a corporation and sold stock to raise money for the office building through guidance of a special committee. The Coast Guard agreed to pay 15% of the office building cost in yearly rental payments. At the same time the chamber also formed a separate committee focused on housing. (Today’s federal building — where the Coast Guard is based today — was 20 years in the future; USCG moved there in 1966.)

The chamber’s goal was to fund construction of what is known today as the Community Building at the corner of Third Street and Main Street. At one time this corner was the site of Juneau’s renowned log cabin brewery.

The concrete Community Building, seen here in a July 2023 photo, was erected in 1949-1950 as office space to secure the USCG 17th District headquarters. The headquarters moved to its present location in the federal building in 1966. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

The concrete Community Building, seen here in a July 2023 photo, was erected in 1949-1950 as office space to secure the USCG 17th District headquarters. The headquarters moved to its present location in the federal building in 1966. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

Time was of the essence. The Coast Guard wanted occupancy within a short period. Thus, the three-story concrete office building was erected and opened in September of 1949 after a speedy construction.

At the grand opening ceremony, however, the Coast Guard commander delivered a grave announcement: the housing offered was inadequate in both quality and quantity. The Coast Guard’s plan was a package deal: come up with 75 more living units or lose the military headquarters.

Once again town leaders hurriedly expanded their plan. They urged additional fundraising — perhaps like a Kickstarter campaign today — and work began to fulfill the housing demand. Three lots were purchased on Fourth Street between Franklin and Gold Streets. Architectural plans were drawn and approved. Anderson Construction Company of Seattle got the bid to construct the 12-story, 132-unit reinforced concrete Mendenhall Tower Apartments. Construction began in April of 1950.

Keeping the Coast Guard in Juneau in the late 1940s depended on quickly finding quality housing for USCG families. The Mendenhall Tower Apartment was started in 1950 and occupants moved in by 1951. (UAF-2010-25-444, circa 1951)

Keeping the Coast Guard in Juneau in the late 1940s depended on quickly finding quality housing for USCG families. The Mendenhall Tower Apartment was started in 1950 and occupants moved in by 1951. (UAF-2010-25-444, circa 1951)

By 1951 the apartments were ready for occupancy. It was a Herculean effort despite some controversy about the large size of the building. Juneau kept the 17th Coast Guard District headquarters which bailed out the town and secured the position of solid government service provider. Statehood in 1959 continued that role. Keeping the state capital in Juneau became a dedicated focus for city leaders.

Today the Mendenhall Tower Apartments are advertised with three apartment sizes: studio at 310 square feet, one bedroom at 460 or 566 square feet, and a two-bedroom unit at 716 square feet. Current rents for these units, as listed on the Weidner Apartment Homes website, run from $1,445 per month to $1,850 per month depending on apartment size.

Mendenhall Tower Apartments on a sunny day between snowstorms in February of 2024. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

Mendenhall Tower Apartments on a sunny day between snowstorms in February of 2024. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

Recollection of this heroic effort appears to be lost to many present-day Gastineau Channel residents. So, how does a 2024 researcher discover such a forgotten story? It is revealed in a comprehensive 2023 study published by the City and Borough of Juneau, and funded through grants issued by the National Park Service and Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources’ Office of History and Archeology. The report updates and expands a 1988 inventory of downtown Juneau’s buildings that are now older than 50 years. Juneau has many of them. The 2023 inventory lists almost 100 in this partial survey of a few hillside blocks.

In the Juneau Townsite Historic Building Survey and Inventory many structures are described with photos, locations and statements of significance. Private residences, commercial buildings, religious structures and government structures are listed.

The story of two important buildings and their rapid construction is told in the 2023 (updated from 1988) Juneau Historic Townsite Building Survey prepared for the City and Borough of Juneau by NorthWind Architects and Public Historian Anjuli Grantham. (Photo of study cover by Laurie Craig)

The story of two important buildings and their rapid construction is told in the 2023 (updated from 1988) Juneau Historic Townsite Building Survey prepared for the City and Borough of Juneau by NorthWind Architects and Public Historian Anjuli Grantham. (Photo of study cover by Laurie Craig)

The 293-page document was prepared under contract with local NorthWind Architects by historic architect Shannon Crossley, architectural intern Summer Putman and public historian Anjuli Grantham. These project preparers researched early newspapers, historic maps and historical library photo collections. Ms. Grantham wrote the statement of significance for each structure. Ms. Crossley and Putman photographed each building and described the architectural features.

Shannon Crossley is well prepared for the work of a historical architect. She is a third-generation Douglasite. Her family came in 1911 to work at the Treadwell Gold Mine. She and her husband are renovating their historic 1927 home in Douglas. Shannon earned her master’s degree at the University of Bath in England “because I wanted to learn about preservation of 400-year-old buildings,” not just the 150-year-old structures of her hometown, she said. Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Architectural intern Summer Putman and historical architect Shannon Crossley discuss the townsite survey they prepared. On the wall behind them is a 9-foot by 12-foot three-dimensional model of downtown Juneau created by colleagues at NorthWind Architects. (Photo by Rose Evans)

Architectural intern Summer Putman and historical architect Shannon Crossley discuss the townsite survey they prepared. On the wall behind them is a 9-foot by 12-foot three-dimensional model of downtown Juneau created by colleagues at NorthWind Architects. (Photo by Rose Evans)

“Juneau has the most intact historic downtown of any town in Alaska,” Crossley said. Other communities have lost much of their core areas to fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, other natural disasters or demolition. She hopes once the inventory projects are completed the city will nominate the Juneau townsite as a historic district.

“Creating a historic district of our neighborhoods offers benefits such as historic preservation grants and tax credits,” Crossley said. Property owners also may have an easier documentation process for a “contributing” property rather than if they applied for an individual historic preservation nomination directly through the National Register of Historic Places. To establish the townsite district, the city can proceed with the nomination process as soon as enough planning staff is hired to handle the application process.

Public historian Anjuli Grantham, who wrote the history of the buildings, is a Juneau resident who is presently working on her doctorate degree in Derry, Northern Ireland. “My research connects the field of critical heritage studies with the climate and biodiversity crises,” she wrote in an email.

The front entry of Mendenhall Tower Apartments at 326 Fourth Street. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

The front entry of Mendenhall Tower Apartments at 326 Fourth Street. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

The city’s Community Development Department website hosts numerous historical documents on other neighborhoods such Chicken Ridge, Starr Hill, Casey-Shattuck, Telephone Hill and downtown Juneau. There are 239 individual local buildings listed on the city historical database.

Housing in Juneau is a critical need once again as the community tries to provide homes of all sizes to encourage young families to stay in Juneau, to help older residents downsize their empty nests and to provide seasonal employees with workforce rentals.

Perhaps there are lessons for today in this story of Juneau pulling together to anchor the U.S. Coast Guard here 75 years ago.

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