Arts & Culture

Constitution Hall – “A Safe Haven for The Alaska Constitutional Convention”

Constitution-Hall-illustrtion---Ray-Bonnell---9-19-14

The University of Alaska began its life as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in 1922. Located just outside Fairbanks, the campus grew in fits and spurts during most of its early years.

Ernest Patty’s tenure as university president from 1953 to 1960 was one of the periods of growth. According to Terrence Cole’s book, The Cornerstone on College Hill, during those seven years the faculty almost doubled in size, the student body increased by 237 percent, and the value of the university’s physical plant increased by 650 percent. New buildings were completed at the rate of one per year.

One of those new buildings was the student union building. Construction on this building, now called Constitution Hall, began in the summer of 1955 and was completed that fall. Designed by the architectural firm of Foss, Malcom and Olson of Juneau, it was built by Pacific Construction Company of Fairbanks.

The reinforced concrete building, as designed and built, has two stories plus a full basement, and two extensions. An L-shaped single-story extension wraps around the building’s south and southwest corner and a single-story rectangular extension with basement is located at the rear.

The construction of the student union coincided with a singular event in Alaska history — the Alaska Constitutional Convention held during the winter of 1955-56. In 1955 Alaska was still a territory, but momentum had been building for several years to draft a state constitution in the hope that it would spur Congress to approve statehood for Alaska.

The Alaska Legislature passed a bill in March 1955 authorizing a constitutional convention. Although there was ample room in Juneau to hold the meetings, the University of Alaska was chosen as a neutral site away from the partisan atmosphere of the territorial capital. Convention organizers and campus administrators decided that the new student union, with meeting rooms, food service, and even a beauty parlor, would be an ideal meeting venue.

Fifty-five delegates from across the territory arrived in Fairbanks for the opening ceremony, November 8, 1955. Workmen were putting the finishing touches on the building even as the convention began.

The opening ceremonies were actually held in the school gymnasium next door in order to accommodate all the delegates, dignitaries and spectators. The next day delegates moved to the new student union. The university regents officially named the building “Constitution Hall” at their annual meeting. (According to a Nov. 8, 1955 issue of the “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,” the gym actually bore that name first, temporarily holding the title for the first day’s opening ceremonies.)

Delegates worked until early February 1956 on the draft document, signing it on February 6 (in the gym, to accommodate the estimated 1,000 people who attended). It was approved by Alaska voters in April 1956. Congress ratified Alaska’s constitution in 1958, and Alaska was admitted as the 49th state in the union in January 1959.

When the constitutional convention ended, Constitution Hall reverted to its originally designed function as a student union. It housed a bookstore, recreation room, beauty shop, student lounge, offices for student government, student publications, and alumni association, and a faculty lounge. When Alaska’s first public radio station, KUAC-FM, began broadcasting in 1962, the university made room for its offices in Constitution Hall.

The building remained the student union until Wood Center opened in 1972. Constitution Hall is now home to the UAF bookstore, campus post office, barber shop, alumni association office, KSUA-FM (the student-run radio station), and United Campus Ministry.

While the interior has seen some major remodeling, the exterior has changed little since 1955. The front entrance has been modernized, but all the wood window frames and sashes are original. The building still evokes much the same atmosphere as when it was constructed. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

 

Sources:

· “Constitution Hall.” Valerie Robancho-Andresen. “UA Journey.” 2011
· “Constitution Hall – National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Terrence Cole. National Park Service. 2005
· “The Cornerstone on College Hill.” Terrence Cole. University of Alaska Press. 1994
· “49 at last! The battle for Alaska Statehood.” Clause-M. Naske. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1973

 

Story by Ray Bonnell

Categories: Arts & Culture

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