Larry Spencer, left, and Bruce Denton, right, in June of 2013. Spencer died this fall, leaving "big shoes to fill" in the management of the building.
Bruce Denton stands in front of the Senate Building on a recent weekday. Denton and business partner Larry Spencer bought the building in 1982, the day before Alaskans voted on whether or not to move the capital to Willow.
Story last updated at 1/15/2014 - 2:43 pm
It was 1982, the day before Alaskans were to vote about whether or not to fund moving the state capital to Willow.
What better to do than purchase a property in Juneau?
When Bruce Denton and Larry Spencer bought the Senate Building the day before that historic vote (in which Juneau prevailed 102,083 to 91,049) Spencer's company, New Treadwell Associates, did real estate and development. Denton owned BCD Construction.
Denton had been running sled dogs for several years and had raced the Iditarod twice. He was looking for something to keep him occupied when he was in town, but also something that would leave him free come winter.
Spencer was originally from Minnesota. When he arrived in Juneau in the late 1970s, he had disembarked from the ferry (which then docked downtown) and spent his first night in Juneau with a friend - in an apartment building that later became the Senate Building.
"It was pretty much his vision," Denton said of the purchase.
Together, the two formed Senate Properties. They bought the Senate Building. They spent two years restoring and remodeling, driving trucks and backhoes inside the building to cart out debris, and essentially whittling it down to a "skeleton" before adding a fourth floor and doing other renovations.
The Senate Building was originally two buildings; they were joined together in the 1940s. It has a history as an apartment building, as well as the location of famous Alaskan Mary Joyce's "Top Hat Bar," among other places.
Denton and Spencer made sure to save 75 percent of the outside walls so that the building maintained its "historic" status, and they opened for business around Christmas of 1984.
From the beginning, the partners were committed to leasing only to those who would be in the property year-round. Those first years, that included a Wendy's, a fast photo-processor, a year-round Christmas store, and a children's store called The Red Balloon.
Over the years, the Senate Building has hosted jewelry stores, a tanning salon, a hairdresser, and a restaurant and cocktail lounge, among other establishments - including current tenants The Bear's Lair, the Juneau Artists Gallery and others.
The third floor has consistently served as space for offices, though now Denton is trying to "hone in" on shorter-term offices.
Spencer and Denton spent more than 30 years working together on the Senate Building and other projects.
Last fall, Spencer died after a long battle with cancer.
"Basically, he managed the building for forever ... It's kind of big shoes to fill," Denton said. "He was one of those people who put a lot into this town and particularly downtown. He was really committed."
One of the biggest challenges for the building, Denton said, is just getting locals to go that far south or tourists to go that far north.
When the building opened, most tourists didn't go south of Ferry Way, he said. Now, many ships dock south of there.
"The tourists that finally do make it up here go 'Oh, this is really nice;'" Denton said. "I think it's nice to be able to share our town with people."