A waterfront view of Marine Parking Garage with the windows of the Juneau Public Library visible on the top floor. “Welcome” signs in several languages greet ships on the dock pilings below. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

A waterfront view of Marine Parking Garage with the windows of the Juneau Public Library visible on the top floor. “Welcome” signs in several languages greet ships on the dock pilings below. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

The story of the Marine Parking Garage: Saved by the library

After surviving lawsuit by Gold Rush-era persona, building is a modern landmark of art and function.

Today’s distinctive rooftop public library is the shining crown atop a contentious story that flared up in the 1980s as the city struggled to provide more parking with a multistory parking garage on the downtown waterfront.

At the time the large concrete garage did not appear out of place as it stood beside Juneau’s big cold storage plant on the dock. The adjacent buildings were industrial, heavy duty construction until the abandoned cold storage complex burned down in a spectacular 1987 Memorial Day weekend blaze. When the smoke cleared the garage stood intact on real estate that was beginning its transition to a tourism section of town.

The public controversy about the parking garage focused on its location on prime waterfront property. It became more serious when a concerned citizen questioned the city’s non-competitive awarding of a $1.5 million construction project to design and build the garage.

Betty Breck, a colorful, slightly eccentric and smart woman who adopted the name Belle Blue and a Gold Rush-era persona, challenged the city’s action in state superior court, and won. The court granted a preliminary injunction to halt work because Ms. Breck/Blue alleged the contract was illegally issued due to the city failing to follow its own rules regarding contract awards. By the time the court granted the injunction, the construction was already half completed.

Breck had a long history of public participation in city issues. The garage was a project of her strong objection. After the injunction was granted, the city responded with an appeal to the state Supreme Court. That body ruled 3-2 in 1985 to reverse the work stoppage and allow the construction to proceed. The key question of the court was timing: did Ms. Breck file her objection in a timely enough manner? She claimed the delay was justified because she was unable to find an attorney to litigate the case so she handled it herself, devoting hours daily in the state law library to build her legal argument. Meanwhile, construction continued on the parking garage.

The 1986 mural “ANCON” is based on a historical photo of early steamship passengers, but features faces of 1980s living descendants of white pioneers. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

The 1986 mural “ANCON” is based on a historical photo of early steamship passengers, but features faces of 1980s living descendants of white pioneers. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

While the controversy roiled, a unique public art mural on the garage exterior was being envisioned by local artist Dan DeRoux. He was inspired by the garage location on the waterfront that was the site for decades of a steamship dock for Juneau. In keeping with the growing emphasis on the city’s role as a tourist destination, DeRoux researched archives and found the perfect historical photo of the Steamship Ancon, one of the first vessels to bring sightseeing visitors to Juneau.

DeRoux, himself the descendent of a grandfather who traveled north in 1897 to the Klondike Gold Rush town of Dawson City, Yukon, wondered if many other heirs of Juneau’s early white pioneers still resided here. Using radio or newspaper, because neither cell phones nor internet existed in the mid-1980s, DeRoux reached out to his neighbors.

“I put out a call that I would be at the Foodland parking lot with my camera and people were welcome to come on a first come, first photographed basis” to be memorialized in the mural, he recalled in a telephone interview this month. Forty-nine descendants made the cut and their contemporary faces appear — affixed to period-fashion dressed bodies — as the early passengers on the Ancon: standing atop the ship’s upper deck. A key code identifies each person in the mural. It is available on the Juneau-Douglas City Museum website.

Artist Dan DeRoux inspects his mural several years after it was painted. (Photo courtesy Dan DeRoux)

Artist Dan DeRoux inspects his mural several years after it was painted. (Photo courtesy Dan DeRoux)

DeRoux completed the mural in 1986 using special Keim brand mineral silicate non-toxic paint that was created especially for use outdoors on concrete. “It bonds with the cement,” Dan said. “The paint should be lightfast for 70-100 years,” he added.

To paint the initial mural, DeRoux constructed a temporary scaffold of 2x4s and Visqueen — the ubiquitous clear plastic sheeting popular prior to opaque tarps — that hung from the roof to protect himself and his work from the summer rain. He raised himself and his paints on an elevating lift. In the 1980s, cruise ships pulled up to the dock directly, not on the new floating docks of today that are some distance back from the garage. The vessels blocked the light and “night would fall,” DeRoux said of the darkened outdoor working conditions.

A year after the mural was finished a dramatic fire threatened to harm it. In the wee hours of the morning of May 24, 1987, on Memorial Day weekend, the adjacent Juneau Cold Storage plant caught fire and burned for 40 hours. An acrid smell drifted over town with the smoke, several witnesses recalled.

A cold storage facility had been a waterfront fixture since 1903 when ice from Taku Glacier provided the essential cooling, according to a brief history written by Juneau Empire reporter Leslie Murray after the 1987 fire. Unlike today when many residents have large freezers to preserve their fish and game meat, for decades families relied on a commercial facility to keep food frozen, stored in personal lockers.

A bustling scene on the Alaska Steamship Company dock in the 1930s. (ASL-P359-015)

A bustling scene on the Alaska Steamship Company dock in the 1930s. (ASL-P359-015)

In the early 1900s as commercial fishing operations grew, the cold storage expanded to handle the increased demand. By 1913, the Juneau Fish and Ice Company was formed then morphed into Juneau Cold Storage with expansions in 1927, 1929, 1935 and 1945. By this time, the capacity to freeze large quantities of fish was key. There were also sections of the plant used for non-frozen refrigeration of meat, vegetables and beer.

On Jan. 17, 1956, a fire gutted 36,000 square feet of the plant containing the fish house, shrimp and salmon cannery, retail fish and meat markets and damaged the dock. The plant was rebuilt and stood as large industrial structures on the waterfront. In the 1960s the plant was also the bottling facility for Coca Cola. The fizzy drink was dispensed in glass bottles that sported the name “Juneau, Alaska” on the label.

By 1987 when the final fire occurred, the plant had not been operating for two seasons and was scheduled to be demolished within a few months. Fire investigators later determined the fire was set by someone, possibly unintentionally by people trying to stay warm in the shelter of the unused building.

About the same time as the cold storage fire, Juneau’s Memorial Library on Fourth and Main Streets had outgrown the 1951 building. A brilliant plan was conceived to build a new library on top of the four-story parking garage. By April 1, 1987, structural engineering reports determined the garage could support a library on top with some reinforcement of structural pilings to bedrock below the tideline. A library has higher weight demands than a car: 300 pounds per square foot (for full bookshelves) versus 40-50 pounds for vehicles.

The architectural award-winning library offers spectacular views across Gastineau Channel for readers and visitors. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

The architectural award-winning library offers spectacular views across Gastineau Channel for readers and visitors. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

Local architects Minch Ritter Forrest designed a light-filled library with stacks for books, spacious reading areas brightened by natural light and a balcony overlooking the harbor. Two conference rooms created meeting spaces for small or large gatherings. The new library redeemed the unusual waterfront parking garage and gave the community a welcome, relaxing and quiet venue with a fabulous view. A children’s area is carpeted with extra thick, soft layers for little readers to sprawl enthralled with picture books.

The new $3.8 million library opened in January of 1989, but its dedication was scheduled for March 11, 1989, amid two weeks of festivities to commemorate the new rooftop facility.

Public art enhances the garage and library. The city’s One Percent for Art program made possible some of the art, such as Bruce Elliot’s stained glass sockeye window, while other pieces were funded through donations. Support from the Friends of the Library purchased upgraded furnishings. While the historical waterfront mural is on the west exterior, a 2021 mural on the south wall created by Alaska Native artist Crystal Kaakeeyaa Worl celebrates renowned Alaska Native civil rights advocate Elizabeth Kaaxgal.aat Peratrovich.

In 2021, artist Crystal Worl created a colorful mural celebrating Alaska Native civil rights advocate Elizabeth Peratrovich on the south wall of the garage. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

In 2021, artist Crystal Worl created a colorful mural celebrating Alaska Native civil rights advocate Elizabeth Peratrovich on the south wall of the garage. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

The parking garage also serves one of the most crucial needs of summer visitors: public restrooms. The facilities were part of the original concept for the building, with street level access, and continue to provide a much-needed public service. Maintaining a usable, clean restroom when 1.7 million visitors and local residents need them is challenging. How a city of 32,000 pays for public facilities is a question all tourist destinations like Juneau must answer.

The garage, with a seventy-five cents per hour parking fee, regularly fills most of its total 280 spaces in summer and occasionally the 24 spaces for registered library patrons.

The view inside Marine Parking Garage which has a total of 280 spaces on four levels. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

The view inside Marine Parking Garage which has a total of 280 spaces on four levels. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

A new payment system began this month using a pay-by-cell phone app called ParkSmarter. City police have trained in the digital license plate reading technology that exists in the downtown Parking Management Zone that tracks free two-hour on-street parking as well as parking lot payments.

While commercial fishing was a huge element of Juneau’s foundational years, it is still a vital part of the waterfront today. Taku Smokeries/Fisheries receives freshly caught fish, shipping wholesale and retail products globally and maintaining a lively working waterfront. The city’s seawalk gives access to the past and present connecting history, books and fish along the way.

The Seawalk looking north toward Taku Fisheries’ Ice House and processing plant. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

The Seawalk looking north toward Taku Fisheries’ Ice House and processing plant. (Laurie Craig / For the Juneau Empire)

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