Plans to update Harrigan Centennial Hall go up for public scrutiny tonight. The design to be presented tonight is the product of months of meetings and public process.
A public meeting on the Centennial Hall redesign begins at 6:30 p.m. tonight inside — you guessed it — Centennial Hall. And city officials want your thoughts.
As heavy equipment finishes work on the parking lot of Harrigan Centennial Hall, architect Garrett Burtner stands on the sidewalk outside the building’s main entrance.
“Essentially, the new entry would be when you come across the new parking lot plaza, instead of going straight in, you make a 15-degree turn to the left, and you’re headed into the main entry,” Burtner says.
Burtner works for the Anchorage firm McCool Carlson Green. He and firm partner John Weir have drawn up the new plans. Burtner says his firm has a lot of history with this building.
“Our senior partner at McCool Carlson Green, John McCool, was the original architect of Centennial Hall, it just so happens,” he said. “He was a young architect starting out in the 60s, and he was working in Seattle, and he did all the drafting and the trips up here, saw it be built.”
That was back in 1967. The new plans for Centennial Hall preserve many of the building’s most popular features — including the giant windows behind the stage, the footprint of the auditorium, and the high windows over the building’s main hallway. But it also modernizes the space.
The main entrance, for example, moves from right in front of the auditorium to the left, and leads into a lobby that goes clear through to Crescent Harbor on the other side.
“So the idea is that you really have this line of sight through the new building to the harbor, and vice versa, if you’re on the harbor side, looking through to town,” Burtner said. “So if you arrive, and come up from the docks or off the lightering dock, you not only can tell where you’re supposed to go in the building, but you can see right through and you can see that there’s town right there.”
So, if you’ll allow for a little imagination, let’s walk into that lobby. Through the doors, and just to your left, is the new entrance to the Sitka Historical Museum. Historical Society board member Ernestine Massey said that’s a big change.
“What I like is the access from the lobby,” Massey said. “That’s a huge improvement. We were clear down at the other end of the building before, or we are now.”
The museum also gets more space — slightly more in this first phase, and a lot more if the plans proceed to the second phase.
“We have materials stored all over the community,” she said. “So if the time comes that we can grow, and we can become the real full museum we want to be, the space is there for us to do it when we get the funds.”
Still in the center of the lobby now, close your eyes if you need to, you see the office for building staff straight ahead and, there to the right, a hallway leading to the rest of the building. Down that hallway, the auditorium, meeting rooms that can be partitioned off or linked together, a new kitchen, and expanded storage space for the building’s equipment. And out on the other side of the lobby, Crescent Harbor, and a pedestrian walkway.
“The way it was before, it was really unsafe,” said Fred Reeder, who works for Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, which represents the various cruise companies that bring visitors to Sitka and other ports.
Reeder says having a driveway behind Centennial Hall was less than ideal for visitors who were arriving at the lightering docks nearby.
“We had buses going behind the building and people launching boats, and then we tried to move 1,000 people through them,” he said. “My concern is as we grow and try to grow the industry back to what we had before, was that we can still use Crescent Harbor and have a wonderful entry to the building and use it safely, and also as we use the Old Sitka Dock, the McGraw dock, that we have a place to bring the buses, so this truly becomes the visitor center that it should be.”
Reeder and Massey both sit on the Centennial Hall Building Design Committee. It’s a group of representatives from the various community groups that use this building. And there are a lot of those — both permanent residents, like the museum, and seasonal groups, such as the New Archangel Dancers and the Sitka Summer Music Festival. But the building’s reach goes further than that. It hosts weddings, funerals, conventions, city government meetings, rehearsals, performances, fundraisers and voting, among other things. It’s hard to live in Sitka too long without setting foot inside Centennial Hall.
City officials say they’re really happy with the amount of collaboration that’s gone into designing the plans for the new Centennial Hall, and that the community should be proud of the effort and the end result.
But nothing is set in stone. And even the architects, standing back outside that imaginary lobby now, say they hope to get a lot of commentary from the public. Architect John Weir says he’ll know tonight’s meeting is a success based on whether the public is engaged.
“If they’re asking lots of questions, if they’re getting up and afterward they’re asking us tons of questions, it’s a total success,” Weir said. “If they just leave, we’re in trouble.”
The architects, members of the design committee and officials with the City of Sitka say they know summer is a bad time to ask people to come to a meeting. But all the same, they’re hoping that after months of committee input and architectural designs and more committee input and conversations around conference tables that the next voice weighing in on this process is yours.