Anchorage’s KENI radio transmitter building is an Art Deco gem
Alison Hoagland, in her book Buildings of Alaska, calls the KENI radio transmitter building at 1777 Forest Park Drive in Anchorage an “Art Deco gem.”
Anchorage’s KENI radio station was a sister station of Austin “Cap” Lathrop’s KFAR radio station in Fairbanks, which began operations in 1939. Lathrop was an Alaska businessman and industrialist with operations across the territory. He owned several newspapers; and theaters in Cordova, Valdez, Anchorage and Fairbanks. For Lathrop, radio was a natural expansion of his enterprises.
In 1947, with Lathrop’s Fourth Avenue Theater in Anchorage scheduled for completion later that year, Lathrop turned to establishing an Anchorage radio station. According to Robin Chlupach’s book, Airwaves over Alaska, Augie Hiebert, the radio engineer responsible for building Lathrop’s KFAR radio station, was instrumental in establishing the new Anchorage station. In March 1947, while returning to Fairbanks from his wedding and honeymoon in the Lower 48, Hiebert scouted out possible radio transmitter locations in the Anchorage area.
A site about 1/2 mile southwest of downtown Anchorage was finally chosen for the transmitter. The location is on the southwestern shore of what is now called Westchester Lagoon.
In July 1947 Hiebert moved to Anchorage to oversee construction. According to National Park Service documents, construction began that same month. The building and the 326-foot transmission antenna near it were finished in April 1948. KENI radio station transmitted for the first time on May 2, 1948. Lathrop died two years later in a mining accident near Healy.
KENI’s operations were similar to KFAR’s in Fairbanks, with broadcast studios and offices in a Lathrop-owned building downtown, and the transmitter building (which also contained housing for staff) and antenna at a remote location. For Anchorge’s KENI studios and offices, that Lathrop-owned building was the Fourth Avenue Theater. The two stations also had similar programming.
The KENI transmitter building is usually described as Art Deco, and it has definite Art Deco influences, such as simplified form, smooth exterior surface, angular corners, and tower. However, it also includes Art Moderne (Art Deco’s cousin) elements, with horizontal massing, use of horizontal grooving for decoration, and its asymmetrical central bay.
It was designed by Seattle Architect, Augustine Porreca (1898-1992). Porreca was the associate architect for Lathrop’s Fourth Avenue Theater, and also designed Anchorage’s Holy Family Cathedral.
The transmitter building is a two story, flat-roofed, reinforced concrete building with full basement, 76 feet by 28 feet, with beveled corners. The front facade, on its northeast side, faces Westchester Lagoon.
The building, which is now a private residence, had three bays. The left and right bay facades are identical. The central bay had an asymmetrical design, with a narrow tower on the bay’s right side bearing the station’s call letters. The central bay was also angled slightly away from the building’s main structure, with the bay’s left edge five feet farther from the building than the right edge. A flat-topped marquis above the middle bay’s first floor protected the building entrances. Decoration consisted of 1-inch horizontal grooves set into the flat surface of the facade, and incised squares set into the face of the tower.
Inside, the main floor had a foyer, control room, shop, garage, and a one bedroom apartment. Two two-bedroom apartments were upstairs. The basement housed utilities, an office, and a stand-by diesel generator.
Few changes have been made to the exterior of the transmitter building, while the interior has been remodeled numerous times. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
The building served as the KENI transmitter until 1998, when the radio station moved its operations farther out of town.
Airwaves over Alaska, The Story of Broadcaster Augie Hiebert. Robin Ann Chupach. Sammamish Press. 1992
Buildings of Alaska. Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
“KENI, Anchorage Alaska.” A. G. Hiebert. In Broadcast News magazine, <https://worldradiohistory.com/ARCHIVE-RCA/RCA-Broadcast-News/RCA-57.pdf>. January 1950
“KENI Radio Building, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Michael Dunham. National Park Service. 1988
Mid-Twentieth Century Architecture in Alaska Historic Context (1945-1968). Amy Ramiriz et al. National Park Service, <http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/oha/publications/MID20thCArchitectureinAK3.12.2018.pdf>. 2016