How my fascination with an abandoned building eventually led me to discover Alaska’s most significant architect.
I’ve always had a fascination with abandoned buildings. Fortunately, (for me) as a child growing up in Anchorage during the ’80s, I had plenty of buildings to be fascinated by but there is one, in particular, that could be called the poster child of Anchorage’s economic recession, the Mt. McKinley building or as it was known then: The McKay Building.
For over 20 years it loomed over the East end of 4th Avenue, 14 stories of windowless concrete and peeling paint, oh and if you don’t remember it was pink.
There has always been a degree of intrigue with this building (for many in Anchorage) because of the circumstances in which it was abandoned. Officially, it was abandoned due to failure to meet upgraded safety standards for high-rise buildings because it lacked a sprinkler system and likely contained asbestos. Unofficially, it was likely due to the murders, but that’s another story entirely.
Now, this may seem odd but I had a recurring dream of exploring the building somewhat frequently, but in the dreams, the building was just a little bit different each time and it was almost always in a different location. Obviously, the differences in the floor plans were because I had no idea what the interior of the building actually looked like (I wouldn’t go inside on an urbex mission until sometime in the late ’90s) but the changes in location felt real like there must be other versions of the building out there.
The Mt. McKinley Building as it was originally named was built in 1951 as a HUD apartment building in response to a housing shortage in Anchorage. Along with its identical sister building at 1200 L street, they were designed by architect Earl W. Morrison for McDonald Architects of Seattle Wa (although incorrectly listed on the NRHP). Maybe you’ve never heard of Morrison but you’ve definitely seen his work, and not just in Anchorage. There are five variations of this building in four Alaska cities and another in downtown Seattle.
This all came together when I was looking at a 1960s photo of Seattle. There was a building labeled as “the Grosvenor House” near the Space Needle; A hulking concrete structure that looked like five Mckay buildings glued together, same paint job, same window configuration, everything the same but much larger. It’s still there today, it was recently redeveloped into trendy apartments called Skye at Belltown (500 Wall St) marketed toward millennial renters. Seeing the photos of Grosvenor House made me remember a building I’d seen while walking in downtown Juneau – The Mendenhall Apartments. The tallest building in Juneau was also built in 1951, it too has the same window configuration and the only differences (outwardly) are the slightly rounded corners, and two floors shorter in height, and if this is definitely another variation of the same building. Surely, there must be more? Right?
Through some Google Maps exploration, I found two more buildings in Alaska. Downtown Sitka’s Cathedral Arms is a shortened version of the Mendenhall Apartments and the tallest building in Sitka, it has the same paint scheme and current colors as the McKinley tower in Anchorage. In Ketchikan, the Mary Frances Towers feature the same boxier shape as Grosvenor House and McKinley Building but in an “I” shape configuration, but unmistakably, the same building with the same paint scheme.
So, maybe I knew about the other buildings through a psychic vision communicated through my dreams or maybe it was just a coincidence, probably the latter but Earl W. Morrison certainly left his mark on Alaska and could possibly be considered Alaska’s most impactful architect.