Anchorage turns 100 this year. And one of the city’s first permanent homes was the Oscar Anderson House downtown.
Oscar Anderson claimed he was the 18th person to arrive at Anchorage’s original tent city along the banks of Ship Creek in 1915. He soon started a butcher shop. Unlike others, who saw Alaska as a short-term adventure, House museum tour guide Mary Flaherty says Anderson decided to make the new settlement his home.
“He was a little bit older. He was about 33 when he came. As a businessman I think he saw the potential.”
During the city’s first land auction in July of 1915, Anderson bought a plot on Cook Inlet near what’s now M Street and 4th Avenue.
“When Oscar first bought in this part of town, it really wasn’t that popular to live on the water. It was a long ways from 4th and 5th Avenue where the business activity was. You had to hike the hill, certainly in the winter.”
And the plot, like all of the others in town, didn’t offer much: “Tree stumps and dirt and new place to put your tent,” Flaherty quips.
A few months after buying the plot, Anderson’s wife and three young children joined him. They stayed in a tent from October to December while they constructed one of the first wooden-framed houses in Anchorage. The style and layout of the brown and yellow house matched many others around the United States but not in Alaska.
“For here, it was pretty much a mansion. Most people, if they built at all – one room log cabin.”
Part of the challenge was getting the supplies to Anchorage.
“It was just hard to build. It was expensive to get all the supplies and that since we don’t have local materials that can be used right away.”
The Anderson home features a small floral wallpapered parlor with a short, elegant couch. A massive iron stove dominates the kitchen and abuts a small dinning room complete with a china cabinet. The bathroom’s original flush toilet was fed by an upstairs water tank. A narrow staircase leads to the second floor.
“It gets kinda cozy up here,” Flaherty says as she climbs the narrow, creaky staircase. “But still, better than a one room tent.”
Barely two feet from the top step is a full-sized bed. Anderson and his wife slept in the hallway across from the only closet in the house. The children shared tiny bedrooms on each side.
Flaherty says Anderson was a prosperous Swedish entrepreneur. During his years in Anchorage, he dabbled in raising cattle, mining coal, starting an airline, and serving on the board of a newspaper. His tiny mansion lent an air of sophistication to the frontier town with its player piano and gramophone.
“And the family, or at least Oscar, liked opera,” Flaherty says as the old gramophone begins to spin and a slow aria plays.
The Andersons were the only owners of the house. They donated it to the municipality in 1976. It had to be picked up and moved 60 feet across the street because the original land was sold for building condominiums. Then, after four years of restoration work by volunteers, in opened as a museum in 1982.
It’s filled with memorabilia of many of Anchorage’s first non-Native settlers. Ice skates hang in the arctic entry, old spice boxes line the kitchen shelves, and photos of high school basketball teams hang on the parlor walls.
Flaherty says the house isn’t just significant because of the owners. It represents the beginning of the city and the families that chose to make it their home. Tours of the house are available all summer.