Anchorage is a place of jarring contradictions, a discontinuous modern high-rise city growing out of a frontier settlement with almost no points of transition. A grid-plan railroad town, Anchorage might have been an average American city were it not for its attractive location and its continued boomtown growth. Located at the head of Cook Inlet, on a peninsula separating Knik and Turn-again arms, Anchorage is sheltered on the east by the Chugach and Kenai mountains and on the north by the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range. Set between these jagged, snow-covered mountains and a sea with 35-foot tides, Anchorage in 1940 was a small city in a splendid location. Unprecedented growth during World War II and the oil boom of the 1970s have resulted in an expansive city of 226,000 people in 1990, half of the state's population.
As the northernmost point on the proposed Alaska Railroad that could also be reached by sea, Anchorage started as a supply point for railroad construction in 1914. A tent city immediately appeared in the Ship Creek valley. In 1915, a townsite on the bluff south of Ship Creek was laid out by the Alaska Engineering Commission, the construction arm of the Alaska Railroad. The plan consisted of 121 square blocks, each 300 feet on a side. Each square was bisected by a 20-foot-wide alley and divided into twelve lots, 50 feet by 140 feet. Every street was 60 feet wide.
Several blocks were withheld for public purposes. These Federal and Municipal Reserves are today occupied by federal and city buildings constructed in the 1930s. The School Reserve, once occupied by Pioneer School ( SC020), is now the home of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts ( SC006). Two adjacent blocks withdrawn as a Park Reserve are occupied by the Anchorage Museum of History and Art ( SC019) and the Public Safety Building. The Park Strip (officially Delaney Park) is the swath of blocks just south of the original townsite. Originally meant to be developed, it was withdrawn as a firebreak and park area and served briefly as an airstrip in the 1920s. Other parks were established as the development of the city moved south and east.
On 10 July 1915, the lots were auctioned off, and the development of Anchorage began. For the first five years the Alaska Engineering Commission administered the townsite, but in 1920 the city of Anchorage was incorporated with a population of 1,856.
The first generation of Anchorage's buildings—some of which remain—was characteristically wood frame, one and two stories, with a minimum of ornamentation. Housing built by the Alaska Engineering Commission for its employees often had elements of the bungalow, with front porches, prominent roofs, and front gables repeated in porches or vestibules. Commercial buildings, which clustered on Fourth Avenue from the start, were on the same scale as the residential but had false fronts and storefront windows.
The appearance of a new construction material—reinforced concrete, which was used for commercial and public building in the late 1930s—brought a stylistic maturity to the architecture of the town. The city hall ( SC002), U.S. Post Office and Courthouse ( SC003), and Alaska Railroad Depot ( SC013) were constructed of this material in styles that ranged from Classical Revival (city hall) to Moderne (post office). The exuberantly Art Deco Fourth Avenue Theatre ( SC004) was also of this period. At the same time, housing continued to be modest, with gable-roofed Cape Cod styles growing in popularity. The city burst beyond the bounds of the original townsite and into the area south of the city.
The construction of Fort Richardson (now Elmendorf Air Force Base) ( SC036) on the bluff north of Ship Creek and continued military building after the war resulted in a population boom; Anchorage grew from a little more than 4,000 in 1940 to 44,000 in 1960. The first annexation of a suburban area—South Addition—occurred in 1945, and the first zoning ordinance was enacted in 1946. The first high-rises, the McKinley Apartment Building (now McKay Building) and the Inlet Towers ( SC021), were built in 1951. The residential city continued to spread south and east.
On 27 March 1964, Anchorage was rocked by an earthquake that caused some parts of downtown to drop 30 feet. The north side of Fourth Avenue was particularly hard hit and has been rebuilt with low commercial buildings. Downtown became a checkerboard of one-story bungalows next to twenty-story office buildings. The discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 resulted in another boom for Anchorage, which became regional headquarters to the oil companies. Between 1970 and 1980, the city of Anchorage consolidated with its surrounding borough, and the population grew from 48,000 to 174,000. In the next decade it gained another 50,000.
Such rapid growth has been disastrous for the rational development of the city. Traffic jams are ironic in a state of such incredible space. Tokens of a honky-tonk town—such as the portable, electric signs found in front of every bar and liquor store—have recently been banned, and developers are now required to landscape the public space surrounding their developments. Slowly, Anchorage is maturing as a city.
Anchorage has embarked on Project 80s, an effort to improve public facilities. An 11-mile coastal trail, winding around the city, was one non-architectural result of these expenditures. Several important public buildings were constructed—Sullivan Arena ( SC022), Egan Convention Center ( SC007), Loussac Library ( SC025), Anchorage Museum of History and Art ( SC019), and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts ( SC006). Ranging from the glass modernism of the Egan Convention Center to the multigabled, multitextured Postmodernism of the Performing Arts Center, they have added interest and sophistication to the architectural scene.
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