Originally published on Knik.co
Exiting the 2.7 miles of granite to get to Whittier, Alaska is as much a part of the experience as anything else in the town is. The Anton Anderson memorial tunnel spans through Mt. Maynard as the only entryway into the town, that isn’t by plane or boat.
After you adjust your eyes to the light of day you’ll see a small town situated tightly between land and sea. In one glace you can see the entire town, mostly raining and cloudy the concrete buildings against the stormy mountainsides remind of you of a horror movie. In fact, a couple years ago a Soviet-era horror movie starring Gerard Butler was considered to be filmed in the town of Whittier, but eventually fell through.
As a child, and eventually as an adult, the Buckner building fascinated me. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t explore the rotting structure. I have at least a dozen times over the years with friends. Preparing to explore the building was tricky. You had to wear rubber boots to keep your feet dry as most of the floors were flooded by 2 or 3 inches of rainwater. Once my boots were cut open by some broken glass I stepped on. Nothing duct tape couldn’t fix. A flashlight was necessary for the expedition as most of the building was hidden from sunlight. I hardly believe in the paranormal, but my heart would race walking down those dark hallways into the unknown.
Discovering something new every time I visited, the building always surprised me. From a small room in the East wing covered floor to ceiling with pages from porn magazines to the rusted bars of the jail cell near the entrance to the basement, the building was too big and too interesting to explore just once. I had to keep coming back for more.
Over the years I’ve gathered as much information as I could about the building and its history. I wanted to know every room. I learned about the theater which I eventually found my third time going. I was never able to find the bowling alley despite my best efforts. I purchased a couple books and spent hours on the internet reading and researching everything I could about the building.
Originally a strategic port used by the military in World War II, the Port of Whittier along with the railroad shipped materials to the Aleutians to aid in the efforts of American troops fighting the Japanese during the attacks in the early 1940’s.
In 1949 the military constructed two large buildings and several small buildings in the tiny town to house, service, and entertain the small port. These buildings would later be connected by heated underground tunnels that would run under the town, which remain to this day. These large structures became known as the Buckner building, named after General Simon Buckner, a key player in the building of the passage tunnel to Whittier, and The Begich towers which houses over 90 percent of the city to this day.
Known as “a city under one roof” the Buckner building was a facility meant to bring everything a small town would need within the walls of one building. The building cost the Army $6,000,000 to create and was opened in 1954.
Six stories above ground and two stories below, the building spans at 273,660 square feet, 525 feet long and 160 feet wide, and was at the time the largest structure in the territory.
A structure this massive was able to accommodate comfortable housing for over 1,000 people as well as a myriad of recreational opportunities. A rifle range, a 350-seat theatre (built for live shows as well as movies), a radio station, a bakeshop, a hobby-shop, and a bowling alley were just a handful of the amenities brought to the families and employees of the Port of Whittier from the early 50’s to the late 60’s. The Buckner building housed needs of daily life including a barber shop, a snack bar, a cafeteria, classrooms, a church, and even a six-cell jail. In the case of medical attention the building provided an infirmary, operating rooms, an x-ray clinic, examination rooms, and a pharmacy.
The general aesthetic of the building was Cold War era utilitarian. Sparsely decorated, the walls were painted pastel and the doors clearly marked. Only one room in the building was styled with wallpaper. A music listening room had wallpaper depicting two people dancing around a record player.
Architecturally the Buckner was sound. It survived the 1964 earthquake with cosmetic damage at most. The success is due to the building being built in seven sections, separated by 8-inch gaps to allow the building room to wiggle.
The Buckner building was soon abandoned along with the military presence, in the mid 1960’s.
Hope was still had for the monstrosity. In the early 1980’s Pete Zamarello purchased the building eager to turn it into a prison. In efforts to take this project off the ground, Zamarello had the building gutted. After this feat the Anchorage businessman soon ran out of money for the project and later filed for bankruptcy. The building became orphaned once more.
Since the failed attempt to create the prison the building has fallen victim to vandals and vultures. A popular place for Alaskans to explore it became the place to leave your mark with a little spray paint and a few pictures to take home. Littered with the glass of broken windows and saturated with spray paint the building became a local Alaska curiosity and a liability. The building remains structurally sound to this day, but with broken glass, rusted fixtures, hibernating bears, mold and asbestos running rampant throughout, one puts themselves at risk when entering.
Since the fall of 2013 a fence has gone up around the historic building after the city of Whittier gained ownership after it went into foreclosure. Wanderers now face additional risks beyond being exposed to asbestos or running into a bear, but could receive a citation arrest if caught. The city hasn’t a plan for the building as both demolishing and restoring are expensive.
With the days of exploration over one can only admire the monolith from afar. Perched above the strange and isolated town the building looms as a reminder of a militaristic past and an uncertain future.