Monday, July 22, 2013

Bunnell House (oldest building on campus) still an important part of University of Alaska, Fairbanks

The Bunnell House as it looked in about 2000

The Alaska College of Agriculture and School of Mines (now the University of Alaska Fairbanks) got off to a slow and shaky start. Established in 1917 with an initial appropriation of $60,000 from the territorial legislature, the school’s trustees immediately began construction of a classroom building on what quickly became known as “College Hill.”

The legislature met bi-annually, and by the time it next convened in 1919, the classroom building was essentially complete. However, the college had negligible funds left to equip the building, hire instructors, and open the school.

Although $50,000 was requested, no bills were passed that year to fund the college, so its trustees were forced to wait another two years, hoping the next legislature would be more amenable. In 1921, the college did receive $41,000 to finish and equip the classroom building, hire a faculty and build a residence for the school’s president (shown in the drawing). An amendment to the funding bill stipulated the cost for the president’s house was not to exceed $8,000.

Almost all the college’s early buildings, being of wood-frame construction, were eventually replaced. However, the president’s residence, known now as the Bunnell House (in honor of the college’s first president, Charles E. Bunnell), still survives, and is the oldest campus building still in use.

The president’s residence was a six-room wood-frame cottage with full basement. Constructed in the summer of 1922 (the college began classes that fall), the house was located adjacent to the only road onto campus, about where the Lola Tilly Commons is now located.

Finances were tight during the college’s early years, and everyone, from President Bunnell down to the students, worked multiple jobs. Twelve students enrolled during the college’s first year, and except for one senior, all were freshman. This meant no advanced courses for most of the instructors. According to William Cashen’s book, “Farthest North College President,” Earl Pilgrim, the metallurgy instructor, spent many of his free hours that first semester painting and wallpapering the interior of the president’s residence.

Bunnell was a tireless and dedicated worker. Neil Davis, in “The College Hill Chronicles,” writes, “Most of President Bunnell’s waking hours were spent in his office or working somewhere else on the campus. Late at night he retired to his small frame residence, which stood like a guard house near the entrance to the campus and allowed him to observe all who entered there and at what hour.”

President Bunnell lived in that house until his death in 1956. This was in spite of the fact that he resigned as college president in 1949. Terris Moore was appointed the new president that same year and Bunnell was given the title of “President Emeritus.”

At the regents meeting in spring 1949 (by this time the college had become the University of Alaska), Bunnell informed the regents that he had no intention of leaving the president’s residence, and Moore and the regents decided not to force the issue. Moore and his family were housed temporarily in the university infirmary until moving into newly built quarters later that year.

After Bunnell’s death, his house was used as faculty housing until the 1970s. It was relocated to its present location on Chatanika Drive, behind the university fire station, in 1958. The building now houses the university’s Early Childhood Development program.

Situated on a hillside, the Bunnell house in its present location still has a lovely view of Chena and Tanana River lowlands (albeit facing a different direction). It is also still used for education, something Charles Bunnell would be pleased with.


·         Farthest North College President, Charles E. Bunnell and the early history of the University of Alaska, William R. Cashen, 1972, University of Alaska Press
·         If these walls could talk, the Bunnell House, Scott McCrea, August 2006, University of Alaska Marketing and Publications
·         The Cornerstone on College Hill, Terrence Cole, 1994, University of Alaska Press
·         The College Hill Chronicles, How the University of Alaska Came of Age, Neil Davis, 1992, University of Alaska Foundation

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