In the 1950s the United States government built a bunker of a residential skyscraper in the Alaskan wilderness. The purpose of the bomb-proof mid-century Hodge Building was to support a remote logistics station in Whittier, Alaska. It was part of a completely self-sufficient complex designed to allow its residents to stay indoors for months at a time during the harsh coastal Alaskan winters.
The military eventually withdrew from Whittier before the Cold War facilities were fully utilized, leaving the mostly vacant buildings to the town. When the second largest earthquake in recorded history leveled much of southern Alaska in 1964, the 14-story Cold War relic was one of few structures to survive. Most in Whittier eventually found their way to the building, which was renamed Begich Towers (or BTI) after a missing Congressman. Today all but a handful of the town’s residents live inside.
The town of Whittier is situated on the western end of the Prince William Sound, about 75 miles southeast of Anchorage and somewhat centrally located on the southern coast of Alaska.
Before the twentieth century, the area had been used for centuries by the Chugach Indians to traverse the Kenai Peninsula. The Whittier Glacier and the eponymous town were named for American poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The settlement sits on a delta in which mountains rise to 3,500 feet within two miles on either side.
In 1941 the United States military took an interest in Whittier to function as the backup port to the primary one at Seward, about 50 miles to the south. The military was drawn to Whittier for many reasons, primarily because it is the state’s only year-round ice-free deep-water port.
It also has radar-unfriendly claustrophobic topography and famously terrible weather, which obscures visibility for much of the year. All desirable qualities for the military, to be sure – however its drawback was its isolation; at the time the region had no rail or vehicular access. The U.S. Army began construction of a rail line in 1941 from Whittier to nearby Portage, Alaska. Because Whittier is surrounded by mountains, connecting it to other towns required significant tunneling.
From 1941 until 1943 Army engineer Anton Anderson led the largest tunneling project in United States history. When completed, the one-mile railroad tunnel through Begich Peak and the 2.5-mile railroad tunnel through Maynard Mountain combined for 13,300 feet. When it was finished, it was the longest tunnel in America.
While the United States was engaged in World War II, resources were temporarily diverted away from Whittier, leaving little activity in the area for the next five years. On December 17th, 1945 the Army allowed the Alaska Railroad Company (the town’s chief non-government tenant) to assume operations in Whittier.
The U.S. government returned to Whittier at the onset of the Cold War. The oldest surviving structure from this occupation is the Alaska Communication Systems (ACS) building, also the oldest concrete structure in Whittier (pictured below, source).
Whittier ACS building
Whittier ACS building
Built in 1943, this self-contained secure facility housed the radio and telegraph communications equipment. During this time Whittier was a “SECRET” installation known as H-12.
In 1948 construction began in Whittier on the first of two enormous concrete structures. The “City Under One Roof” (aka Buckner Building, pictured below) was completed in 1953. It was a long, Brutalist monolith nestled into the side of the mountain on the east side of town, and served as the operational headquarters for the military.
[Buckner Building: Named in honor of General Simon Bolivar Buckner, the large building crammed an entire military post into one building. It was designed to house a 1500-man garrison with its own chapel, command offices, brig, TV station, PX, theater, laundry facilities, barber, an enormous mess hall, craft shop, a bowling alley, a shooting range, commissary, bakery, dispensary, and private rooms for officers and NCOs. “The Buckner,” as it was called, was the social center for the posts military, civilian and dependent population. ]
The Hodge Building was constructed as three separate towers connected by metal plates. The east tower was built first, followed by the middle tower, and finally the west tower, which was finished in 1957. The flat-roofed Hodge Building was the military’s residential tower, built for bachelor’s quarters and family housing.
“The tower steel and concrete Hodge Building might have been lifted out of New York City and dropped into the Alaskan wilderness intact. The Hodge and the Buckner Composite building, dubbed a “city under one roof,” are the largest most modern inhabited structures built by the Corps of Engineers since the Pentagon.”
The massive structures were, for years, the two largest buildings in Alaska. They were engineering marvels, built to withstand bomb blasts, earthquakes, fires, and 60+ mile-per-hour winds – all while housing up to 1,000 troops indoors across its 150 studio, two, and three-bedroom apartments.
[ During the winter of 1956/57, the Port of Whittier received a record snowfall of 72 feet. ]
After Cold War Occupation
Whittier was an active military port until September 1st, 1960, at which time the facilities were placed on inactive status. Most of the tower’s 1,200 residents – at the time all Army personnel – were reassigned elsewhere. A skeleton crew stayed behind while the buildings were realigned as a sub-installation of Anchorage’s Fort Richardson. For the rest of the 1960s, Whittier’s population fluctuated between forty and seventy people. Those who stayed behind occupied the first four floors of the Hodge Building; other floors remained unoccupied.
On Good Friday in March of 1964, the second most powerful earthquake in recorded history buckled the floor underneath Prince William Sound, registering a whopping 9.2 magnitude on the Richter scale. Whittier, just sixty miles from the epicenter, was severely damaged by the ensuing tsunamis, which brought waves up to 43 feet (13m) tall into town. Of the thirteen Whittier residents who perished in the Good Friday (or “Great Alaskan”) Earthquake, only one body was recovered.
While most of the town was destroyed, the rail lines, docks, deep water wells, and massive concrete buildings remained largely intact. This propelled Whittier into a more important role as other regional ports who suffered more damage were inoperable. The mostly unused Buckner Building was not repaired following the earthquake, and remained unused.
The impressive engineering behind the 14-story Hodge Building was on display as its three separate towers swayed – but miraculously did not collapse. In the basement of the Hodge Building, the plastic-lined water containers were also undisturbed.
Begich Towers, Inc. (BTI)
Whittier started to emerge from the Army’s shadow when the city was officially incorporated in 1969. Three years later, the Army transferred ownership of the two giant Cold War-era buildings (Buckner & Hodge) to the state of Alaska, which then deeded them to Whittier in 1973.
In March of 1974 the Hodge Building was officially renamed Begich Towers in honor of Alaska Congressman Nick Begich (pictured), who went missing in October of 1972 after control towers lost contact with his Cessna 310. Begich was flying with House majority leader Hale Boggs from Anchorage to Juneau when the incident occurred. The search was called off after 39 days; the plane and its four passengers were never found.
The Begich Towers Condominium Association of Apartment Owners was incorporated in 1974 as a 196-unit condo community.
In addition to residential apartments, the building houses Whittier’s grocery store, laundromat, medical clinic, police department, post office, and the city offices.
After its military service the building was modified for civilian life. There are pleasant touches (such as the exterior’s newer blue, cream, and peach paint scheme) that try to establish a playful identity for the formerly drab Hodge Building.
Inside, the painted concrete hallways illuminated by the ubiquitous yellow fluorescent lighting always remind that you are inside what used to be a government building.
“…the old jail, complete with bars on both bedroom doors, steel bunks hanging from the wall, three authentic bullet holes in the walls and window sill, plus a front view of the city, small boat harbor, and Prince William Sound.”
One benefit of living at BTI is that kids don’t need jackets when they go to school in the winter because the town’s school was built immediately behind Begich Towers; it connects to the base of the west tower via an underground tunnel, which shields the kids from Whittier’s extreme winter weather.
Next to the school and towers is the indoor playground (pictured), which protects kids from the elements year-round.
Another Good Friday disaster would strike in March of 1989. The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred when a ship ran into the Bligh Reef off the coast of Alaska, spilling nearly eleven million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.
As the closest town to the disaster, Whittier was an important base camp for authorities and clean-up crews, and its rail barges shipped the hazardous material out of Alaska.
Before the year 2000 there was no vehicular access to Whittier. Anyone who wanted to bring a car or truck into the town had to ship their vehicle into town via boat or train. In 1998 reconstruction began to convert the rail-only Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel for dual-use, allowing vehicular access as well. The two-year project cost $80 million to complete, and drastically improved access to Whittier.
After the tunnel conversion, the trip to drive through cost travelers just $12. Since the vehicular passage in the tunnel is one lane, inbound and outbound traffic is staggered in fifteen minute intervals twice per hour; in the winter this shrinks to five-minute windows to keep the tunnel warm. At night the tunnel is closed.
Initially there was backlash to the tunnel conversion by residents afraid of the potential population influx. Ironically, when the conversion was finished, more people moved out.
In Whittier population turnover can be high, understandable given the lack of consistent, year-round work. During the summer the town’s population swells as boaters, fishermen, seasonal workers, and tourists descend upon the small port. When the sun returns to the sky, residents pour out of BTI in shorts and T-shirts. The temperatures reach the 50’s (F) during the best time of year.
Winters paint a different picture. The population drops to less than two hundred, and the streets empty as most of the town moves back indoors. And for good reason: Sustained winds of sixty miles per hour are not uncommon. It can shatter windshields and rip your car doors right off. With 200 inches of rain and 250 inches of snowfall annually, only the dedicated stay in Whittier through the winter months.
Most of the local businesses in Whittier are in “the triangle” by the waterfront or Anchor Inn building, but employment options are limited. The majority of the Alaska Railroad workers commute from Anchorage, as does Whittier’s mayor and all but one of the town’s police officers. Dock hands who unload the supply barges in Whittier also shuttle in from Anchorage once a week.
Business development is a challenge, as there is very limited buildable land in Whittier. Alaska Railroad is the largest land owner, but it doesn’t pay property taxes and employs few locals. Tourism is a source of income for the town, although its guests tend to have brief visits. Between 700,000 and 900,000 people visit the town annually – primarily via cruise ship or passing through en route to Anchorage – but most don’t stay beyond one afternoon.
Life in Begich Towers
Not all transplants survive the unique lifestyle at BTI. Adjustment is not easy, nor guaranteed, for those who make an attempt. Residents must learn to love their neighbors because despite Whittier’s isolation from the rest of the world, living in a tower with the rest of the town offers an experience devoid of privacy.
The town does seem to attract those searching for separation of something: Establishment. Society. Their past. Some easily adjust and stay for 20+ years. Others don’t make it through the first winter, and liken the experience to being in jail.
There are benefits to living in the Begich Towers. The weather might prevent you from leaving the building for months at a time – but you can go to the Kozy Korner grocery store in pajamas and slippers.
Kids with questions on their homework can go down the hall and knock on the door to the teacher’s apartment. Parents don’t have to worry about kids and traffic at the indoor playground. The city officials are readily accessible on a daily basis. There’s no real threat of crime or terrorism. And if you have pet reindeer, you can keep them in a pen behind the building.
BTI may not have everything you want, but it has everything you need. The building has Internet access and cable, and most rooms have WiFi. The post office is near the building’s entrance and the police station is just down the hall. There’s a health clinic on the third floor. The former military gym and basketball courts (pictured) are massive and offer an expansive indoor area for activity and exercise.
Begich Towers Gymnasium
The room used by the church is in the basement; until recently a Southern Baptist presided over the mostly Catholic congregation. Begich Towers also has a video rental spot, laundry, and at one point there was even a tanning bed. Most in BTI have binoculars sitting by the window. Some keep them for watching whales or goats grazing, but one resident admits they’re for determining “if your husband’s at the bar.”
The towers are not 100% occupied. It has vacant units for sale and some units belonging to seasonal residents. On the building’s top two floors are June’s Whittier Condo Suites, a resident’s bed and breakfast operation with nearly a dozen suites ranging from $155 to $265 a night. Each room has a big-screen TV, WiFi, and sweeping views of Alaska. Proving the Whittier experience is not for everyone, it has mixed reviews on TripAdvisor.
Perhaps the best reason to live in Begich Towers is its perceived invincibility. A visitor recounted a conversation with the resident volunteer firefighter when a “painfully loud fire alarm went off” inside BTI. The visitor asked the firefighter what he should do. The firefighter’s response: “Go back to your condo and shut the door so you can avoid the noise. It’s a concrete building. Nothing’s going to burn down.”
If there is a fire, at least everyone will stay warm.