Inside the Choate House, ‘the fanciest building in Alaska’

Under construction for six years, Choate House is nearly complete

The city of Juneau has existed for 137 years.

 

Mark Choate expects his new house to last for 1,000.

“My idea was to build a house that will last 1,000 years,” he said during a Thursday tour given to the Empire.

After eight years and several million dollars, he may have just that. The secret passageway, elevator, wine cellar, and tower-top study are added bonuses.

“This is a commitment to Juneau, a commitment to the community for longevity. Juneau’s a place you can plan to live generations in,” he said. “For this amount of money, we could’ve built anywhere in the world, but we wanted to be here.”

Mark and Sun Hee Choate bought their home at 230 W. Eighth St. in 1991, paying about $270,000. At that time, the home was more than 75 years old. Its purple and green shag carpeting and tacky wallpaper were saturated with nicotine from an avid-smoking previous owner, and the asking price was $40,000 more than the assessed value.

The couple had been eyeing it for years and daydreaming about what it would be like to live there, across the street from the governor’s mansion.

“We were lucky; we were just able to afford it,” Mark Choate said.

Choate, a successful lawyer, became more successful in the years that followed.

“We thought for years about improving it and fixing it,” but after an abortive remodeling attempt, they instead decided to split time in Hawaii and Juneau, and travel around the world.

After they decided to return to Juneau full-time, “that’s when we started saying, we should get the project going,” Mark Choate said.

Sun Hee Choate created a scale model of what they wanted the home to look like, but rather than hand the project off to a supervising contractor, they decided to oversee things themselves.

“The problem was, both of us were perfectionists,” Sun Hee Choate said.

“We didn’t want to cut any corners,” Mark Choate added.

That meant obtaining triple-paned, mahogany-finished windows from France; bricks reclaimed from a Chicago factory; stone from Europe and a roof from a European-trained coppersmith who now works in Utah.

“That roof should last, literally, 1,000 years,” Mark Choate said.

The finished house — the Choates say the exterior is 95 percent complete — is drawing attention from outside Juneau as well.

This year, the Choate’s house was named one of the top 10 copper building projects in North America.

Erno Ovari is president of Fine Metal Roof Tech, the company that built the Choates’ roof.

“It’s certainly the fanciest building in Alaska,” he said by phone on Thursday.

Down south, a roof like the Choates’ might take two to three months to manufacture and install. In Juneau, it took more than two years because of Juneau’s inclement weather.

“The winter came and the summer came and the snow and storms came. That pretty much slowed the project down,” he said.

Other things slowed it as well. The Choates tore out their kitchen smoke hood four times before they were happy with the result. Sun Hee asked the hired carpenters to tear out and redo interior fixtures several times.

When the installed floor squeaked, the Choates tore it up, sent it to the landfill and cut stone themselves to get the look they wanted.

All of that took time and money. They started planning before 2010, construction started in earnest in May 2011, and it still isn’t fully complete. Nevertheless, the end seems to be in sight, which is a relief for the Choates, who have been living in their incomplete home since Christmas Eve 2014, when Sun Hee decided that the only way they could say on top of the rogue project was to literally live with it.

“Every inch was work,” Mark Choate said.

When complete, the house will be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Choate. He grew up in a military family and was deployed twice to Germany with his father, who served in the U.S. Army.

As they arrived in the country, taking a train from Hamburg to a base near the border between East Germany and West Germany, they passed castles and other imposing structures in the night.

“I think as a 3-year-old, that caught my attention, that sense of age and longevity. I’ve always liked it since,” he said. “I always wanted a tower. … it’s part of what you get to do when you build a house or remodel it: You can just say, what would I like?”

He has the tower that he wanted, plus a hidden staircase connecting the garage and master bedroom. He has a home gym, a wine cellar and plenty of nooks and crannies for grandchildren to play and hide. He’ll soon have a bookcase with a secret door, and a spiral staircase leading to the top of the tower.

He’s heard people say that it was a waste of money, that he could have done something different if he had socked away his savings in the stock market instead of his home.

“It’s OK to have your money invested in where you live, in your space,” he said.

He envisions his home as a family institution, one that will be passed down from generation to generation.

Last month, the Choates returned to Europe, traveling to Venice and staying in a convent designed by the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio.

As they walked through Palladio’s work, they couldn’t help but think of their own, back in Juneau.

“We’re looking at the interior going, ‘We did OK in Juneau.’ It’s a great building, he’s a great architect, but we did pretty well,” Choate said.

 


 

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.

 


 

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