Constructed almost twenty years before Alaska became the forty-ninth state, the Federal Building in Anchorage symbolized the U.S. government's commitment to the economic growth and development of the territory. Providing residents with a post office, courthouse, and other federal services, it was the first large federal building constructed in Anchorage.
This block of Anchorage was designated on the original 1915 plat for the Federal Reserve Bank. The first building erected on the site was a post office, followed by a U.S. Marshals office and territorial jail, which were demolished to make way for the Federal Building. Gilbert Stanley Underwood (1890-1961) designed the original 1939-1940 building and the 1940-1941 west wing addition under the guidance of the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury. Underwood was a Los Angeles-based architect best known for designing National Park lodges. He also designed train stations for the Union Pacific Railroad before he began work for the federal government in 1932. While employed by the supervising architect's office, he designed several federal buildings, including the original portion of the Harry S. Truman Federal Building in Washington, D.C. He served as supervising architect from 1943-1949.
The building housed every federal agency with an office in Anchorage, and tenants included the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Department of the Interior, the Signal Corps, and the Alaskan Railroad. In order to accommodate all of them, the building expanded several times. The first wing extension, completed in 1940-1941, closely followed the original construction and housed the post office. The 1958 courtyard in-fill, a contemporary metal-clad design by Ed Crittenden, housed the Third District Court. The 1991 addition is home to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
The building served as an early symbol of the federal government to Alaskans, giving them confidence in their acceptance as part of the United States. During celebrations of statehood in 1958, a huge American flag with forty-nine stars literally covered the facade of the building. One star was covered with a larger star to highlight Alaska becoming a state.
The Anchorage Federal Building is a 1930s Modern, cast-in-place reinforced concrete building with a flat roof and parapet. The original plans called for the eventual construction of a square building with a large internal courtyard, beginning with the original portion that formed the south side or base of the square. Before completion of the building in 1940, it became clear that it would not be large enough to accommodate all of the federal agencies in Anchorage, so construction began immediately on the first addition. Thus by 1941, both the base and the original portion of the western wing were complete. The western wing was enlarged and the shorter eastern wing was built later. Subsequent additions filled in portions of the courtyard rather than completing the square. Although they have undergone several alterations, the original facade and both wings of the building retain a significant degree of architectural integrity.
The majority of the building has two stories and a basement. The east and west ends of the south elevation, above the main entry doors, are topped by three-story penthouses. In addition to providing access to the offices within the building, the southeast entrance originally led to the courtroom in the east wing and the southwest entrance to the post office in the west wing. Both wings have two stories and the elevations retain much of their original appearance. The building has little exterior ornamentation. The tall, narrow windows are the most distinctive element of the exterior. Their slightly recessed window frames emphasize the verticality of the windows and the building as a whole, as do the stepped recesses on either side of the main entry doors. The current windows are not original, but the visual effect is consistent with the original appearance.
The interior of the building features many original noteworthy elements, yet displays the same lack of embellishment evident on the exterior. Ceramic tiled wainscoting and quarry tiled floors line the stairwells, entry vestibules, corridors and the original postal lobbies. The stairwells also retain original steel newel posts, wrought iron balusters, and stained wood handrails. The ceramic drinking fountains evident in the corridors throughout the building add to its historic integrity. The entry vestibule ceilings feature stepped cove perimeters. Remaining in place are the light fixtures evident in the original designs for the first floor lobbies and the coffered ceilings original to the first floor corridors. The corridor doors are not original. However, they replicate the original two-panel wood doors with upper panels of glass.
The most significant interior space is the original federal district courtroom on the first floor. This room retains its original stained walnut wainscot and benches, and features an oil-on-canvas mural titled Alaskan Landscape behind the judge's bench. The mural was the work of Arthur Kerrick, who secured a Works Progress Administration commission in 1942. The oil-on-canvas painting was not, however, installed until the 1950s. Five murals were planned for the courtroom, but only the Kerrick mural was completed and installed. Art conservator Peter Malarkey restored the mural in 1993.
1939-1940: Construction of original building
1940-1941: First addition constructed
1958: Court facilities addition
1978: Listed in National Register of Historic Places
Location: 605 West Fourth Street
Architect: Gilbert Stanley Underwood
Construction Dates: 1939-1941
Architectural Style: 1930s Modern
Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Primary Material: Concrete
Prominent Features: Tall vertical windows; Rectilinear poured-in-place concrete exterior; Distinguished woodwork; New Deal mural in courtroom
The landscaping and paving scheme for the federal building is symmetrical in design, accenting the composition of the structure. The unpaved areas between the north, east and west facades and the city sidewalks are covered with grass, highlighting the building's light-colored exterior. A grouping of tall shrubs flanks each of the south entrances and spruce trees are evenly spaced around the perimeter of the building. Long, low concrete planters mark the southeast and southwest corners of the property. The majority of the north side of the site is a paved parking area with a narrow planting strip immediately adjacent to the building.
The exterior walls of the Federal Building are constructed of cast-in-place reinforced concrete, with a smooth architectural finish. The poured concrete structure is comprised of three main floors topped by penthouses on the two tower entrances near the southeast and southwest corners. Each penthouse is topped by a twenty-five foot tall concrete chimney. The two entrances originally served the courtroom and post office, respectively, as well as the office areas.
The most distinctive features of the concrete building are the tall, vertical window units that visually add height to the low mass of the structure. The original steel window systems have been replaced with aluminum-clad wood systems with wider muntins and mullions than originally designed. The original entrance doors have been replaced with dark bronze aluminum doors that do not match the original design. The original bronze stair handrails have been replaced with painted steel handrails of a modern utilitarian design. Otherwise, the building's public facades, on the south, east and west sides, retain much of their original appearance.
The original interior finishes of the Federal Building are well detailed, although not exceptional. The original stairways, entry vestibules, 1st floor corridors and old postal lobbies have tiled wainscots and floors laid in simple, linear patterns. The floor tiles are a dense quarry tile in terra cotta and brown earth tone colors. The wainscot tiles are large glazed ceramic tiles in similar earth tone colors of gold, orange and brown. The walls above the wainscot are smooth finish painted plaster. The first floor corridor ceilings are coffered, with simple deep mouldings that break up the otherwise unrelieved long, linear corridor ceiling. Most corridor doors replicate the original 2-panel wood doors with simple wood frames and trim, and bronze-colored lever-style handicapped-accessible hardware matching the original color.
The most noteworthy interior space is the original federal district courtroom on the first floor. The stained walnut woodwork and detailing in this room is simple, yet dignified. Above and behind the judge's bench is a large, multi-colored mural depicting "the Alaska landscape".
The majority of the interior consists of generic office space. Although heavily remodeled in the late 1980's, most areas retain much of the original simple detailing. The original linoleum floors have been carpeted, and the concrete ceilings have been covered with suspended acoustical tile and fluorescent light fixtures.
The original public toilet rooms are largely intact, with green ceramic tile floors and wainscot, and original fixtures. New single-occupancy handicapped-accessible Men's and Women's toilet rooms have been constructed on each floor, rather than remodel the original restrooms.
When it was constructed in 1939, the Federal Building was the most definitive expression of modern architecture in Anchorage. Devoid of the typically elaborate detail of the classical revival architecture popular at the end of the 1930's, the simple rectilinear form of this poured-in-place concrete building has been characterized as "New Deal Concrete". The Federal Building was constructed in an era of economic depression, yet its stable, classical proportions were symbolic to the citizens of Anchorage of the federal government's commitment to strengthening the economy and continued development of the Alaska Territory.
The building was built on the piece of land originally designated as the Federal Reserve in the 1915 Town Plan of Anchorage, Block 27. The first building to occupy the site was a post office, followed by a federal marshal's office and a territorial jail. These structures were removed for the construction of the federal building.
Responsibility for the design of the building was coordinated through the Public Buildings Branch of the Treasury Department. Louis A. Simon, a graduate of M.I.T. and further educated in Europe, was the supervising architect at the time, and Gilbert Stanley Underwood, Yale and Harvard-educated, was the consulting architect. Both of these men had distinguished public and personal careers and rose to national prominence for their designs -- their names are still found on many federal building and Union Pacific Railroad cornerstones.
In addition to its contribution to the development of modern architecture in Anchorage, the federal building is significant for the role it has played in the development of Alaska. The building provided Alaska's citizens with a post office, U.S. Third District Court, U.S. Marshal's office, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Signal Corps and the Alaska Railroad, to name a few. Each organization had its own separate impact on the region, whether in the area of communication, transportation or law and order. Several prominent senators and judges have had offices in the building. As a symbol of the federal government in Anchorage, the Federal Building was a major focal point in the spirited ceremonies that followed the proclamation of Alaska statehood in 1959. The facade of the building was literally engulfed in the redesigned flag featuring the 49th state during those celebrated moments.