After World War II plans were conceived by the U.S. military to construct a massive outpost in Alaska, due in part to the growing concern of suspected Soviet activities next door. The town of Whittier was chosen and construction on the 273,660 square-foot facility began in 1950. Three years later the Buckner building was operational.
At the time it was the pride of Alaska, and for decades the largest building in the state.
But the pride was short-lived; in 1960 the Army Port at Whittier was shut down, leaving “The City Under One Roof” vacant – which it remains to this day.
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The building was constructed as part of Whittier, Alaska’s Camp Sullivan, and named after General Simon Buckner (pictured at right), the highest-ranking Pacific Theater U.S. military officer killed in action during World War II.
Completed in 1953, the complex consisted of reinforced concrete structures and their associated support facilities. The Buckner Building has six visible floors, or eight levels in total if including the basement and penthouse-level ventilation equipment.
The first and second floors had 12-foot ceilings; floors three through six were ten-feet tall. All floors and exterior walls were constructed of poured and reinforced concrete, with structural frames offering lateral resistance and the floor slabs serving as structural diaphragms.
Column footings were sunk into solid bedrock. Elevator shafts and stairwells, the walls of which were eight-inch thick, doubled as lateral reinforcements for the structure.
Its concept was founded as a solution to long-term support to regional military operations in the Alaska territory, as well as support for the petroleum and rail industries.
Buckner was designed to function as a fully-indoor military installation; the complex included an auditorium, a cinema, gymnasium, hospital, library, jail, pool, post exchange (PX), radio station, rifle range, and even a bowling alley (pictured, above left).
Thick concrete walls help defend against the harsh elements and withstand bombs, should the Cold War conflict have escalated. This engineering resilience would later protect the building during the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964.
The decision by the Army to build the Buckner building at Camp Sullivan in the town of Whittier* was not by accident. Its proximity to Anchorage, the year-round ice-free port, and heavy fog cover for much of the year presented positive conditions for military operations.
[ *Whittier, Alaska was first incorporated as a 4th-class city in 1969, and later as a 2nd-class city between 1971 and 1972. ]
Everything about the concept was designed to function under one roof; if push came to shove, none of the 1,000 stationed troops would ever have to leave the facility.
The design also minimized ground movement, should there be concerns of enemy aerial surveillance.
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[ Sidebar: Another Army relic from Camp Sullivan: The Hodge Building.
This 14-story building was under construction at the same time as the “City Under One Roof.” Finished in 1957, today it is known as Begich Towers (pictured at right).
The one-time military housing complex is now a condominium building (map). It serves as Whittier’s largest housing complex (approximately 196 units) and it contain the largest concentration of the city’s year-round residents.
It also houses several businesses, including a bed and breakfast and the city’s Police Department. Curious what condo prices are like in Whittier, Alaska? They have some for sale. ]
Removed From Service
The service life of the Buckner Building met an early end in 1960, when the military’s port at Whittier was scuttled. Section III of General Order 32, which was published on August 22nd, 1960, called for the mega-structure to be placed into inactive status.
Administrative control of military personnel was transferred to Fort Richardson, of which the Buckner Building was also designated a sub-installation.
Buckner Building today
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While most of the Buckner complex buildings had been completely deactivated, they still fell under control of the Army.
Buckner’s power plant would continue operating until June of 1966, when the port of Whittier was turned over to General Services Administration (GSA) for disposal.
Military supervisory control of the structure continued until approximately 1968.
The Great Alaskan Earthquake
On March 27, 1964 the largest earthquake in United States history struck Alaska. The tectonics revealed the second most powerful Richter scale reading ever recorded by a seismograph, registering a 9.2.
Seismic activity moved the ground for nearly three minutes. Forty-foot tsunami waves pounded Alaska’s shoreline, killing 139 Alaskans – thirteen of whom resided in Whittier.
The brilliance of the Buckner building’s engineering would shine during and after the record-setting event. The tsunami destroyed the town’s railroad depot and oil tank storage, the latter of which reportedly exploded and sent burning oil “into the bay for miles.”
But the “bomb-proof” Buckner Building survived largely unscathed. Despite sitting unused for the last four years, the structure had remained in better condition post-earthquake than many other area buildings.
The only building to suffer damage was the complex’s power plant: Two ruptured 10″ fresh water lines from the million-gallon reservoir overlooking Whittier left the plant without a water source. The plant operator also reported a condensate return line had also been broken.
Buckner Building today
Buckner Building Post-Earthquake
Whittier reached incorporation as a 2nd-class city in the early 1970s, a Federal eligibility requirement to purchase GSA land.
The city of Whittier issued a $250,000 general obligation bond in 1972 with the intention of using $200,000 of the proceeds to purchase the property.
The remaining amount would service the maintenance fees of the structures until “revenues could be generated from the lease or sale of the land.” However the city was unable to find a suitor for redeveloping the property, and the building fell into a pattern of failed development aspirations.
Anchorage strip mall czar Pete Zamarello purchased the Buckner building in the late 1970s with the intention of turning the 273,000 square-foot building into a resort.
Two factors collapsed the idea: First, Zamarello’s vision required other dominoes to fall – namely the traffic created by development of road access to the small town of 300. When this road did not materialize in time, Pete’s plans were mothballed. Second, the recession of the late 1980s forced Zamarello’s real-estate empire into bankruptcy.
[ Vehicular access to Whittier was finally added in 2000 with the completion of the Portage Glacier Highway. Apparently not all residents were happy; a few chained themselves together on the roadway. S-I reader Jeff Nelson remembers the event: “They were Cordova residents and did succeed in blocking the Tunnel for a short while by dropping a 55 gallon drum of concrete through a hole in their van’s floor, and chaining themselves to it. State Troopers had a loader operator pick the van up and move it off of the roadway. They then had the operator push the barrel off of the road and reopened traffic.” ]
In June of 1998 Zamarello sold the Buckner building to a consortium of developers known as the Prince William Resort (PWR) Corporation.
Their intentions mirrored Zamarello’s; according to PWR president George LaMoureaux, the building would be converted into 467 condos and hotel rooms and would include “a mall, a spa, a 400-seat theater, a shooting and archery range and convention space. We’re talking a very upscale resort.”
But when the buyer was unable to secure financing, both the deal and the consortium known as Prince William Resort Corporation fell apart.
On a July 17, 2000 NPR broadcast, correspondent Anne Sutton reported an anonymous firm in Florida paid the back-taxes on the Buckner building, which raised optimism for new development. Unfortunately, nothing materialized.
Buckner Building Today
It was not until the 1980s, when most of the windows of the Buckner Building had been broken, that the condition of the building began to noticeably deteriorate as critters, precipitation, and vegetation began to move in.
For thirty years – twenty of which were unused – the monolith withstood everything Mother Nature could summon. But with the help of vandals, the rate of deterioration has quickly increased.
Although the buildings have been vacant for over fifty years, they have never technically been “abandoned” as there has been a continual path of ownership – albeit a path without any signs of redevelopment or restoration efforts.
Walking through the buildings, one can discern safety concerns have not stopped adventurers from having their fun. Graffiti with foul language plagues many walls and every single window has long been broken.
Rusted pipes and wires hang down displaying years of the building’s exposure to the elements. Wind whistles through the windows and the occasional wild animal scurries across the floor. Entire sections of the building are in complete darkness, and the lowest level is reportedly flooded.
Historically enforcement of property trespassing has been lax, however recently urban explorers have been awarded court appearances and fines as the city of Whittier has been more aggressive in patrolling the structure and serving punishments to those caught inside.
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When the snow melts, the building suffers from standing water on most floors. The constant sound of cascading water echoes throughout the complex. Bears have been reported both wandering the upper floors in the spring and hibernating on the lower floors during winter.
Speaking of winter, forays into the building during this season can easily result in broken ankles and wrists; the freezing winter months will turn the standing water on each floor into massive sheets of ice.
Future of Buckner Building
In 2013 the city of Whittier re-assumed possession of the Buckner building on claims of owed back taxes after its most recent owner foreclosed.
For the near future demolition of the Buckner building seems unlikely. The structure contains dangerous amounts of asbestos, and limited access to Whittier means the difficulty in disposing of the debris would pose too much of a financial burden.
With no rush to re-develop the land, the local municipality can hardly justify spending the money to properly raze it “just because.”
In addition, there is a contingent in the town of Whittier who support preserving the town’s now-vacant piece of history. Which scenario unfolds won’t likely be known in the near future, as city manager Don Moore admits either option is “very expensive.”
This Cold War monolith has defied earthquakes, tsunamis, and thirty years of exposure. But today it still stands, showing off an engineering brilliance and reminding us of a different era.
Recently some creative urban explorers made a Buckner building ski video, “Five Floors of Fury.” They did a spectacular job, check it out:
[vimeo 50860740 align=center w=500 h=281]