After a survey found significant structural problems with Alaska’s oldest building, the city of Kodiak and the historical society that operates the 214-year-old structure have begun an ambitious project to repair and preserve it.
The first step is spending $20,000 to design a new roof for the building, which houses the Kodiak History Museum. Actually constructing that roof will cost an unknown amount more.
That’s only the start of the problem: The survey completed this spring found leaking windows, rot in the wooden structure, pipes with the potential to leak onto irreplaceable historical records, and issues caused by the building’s lack of a foundation.
“I think that if you’ve looked over the document, it is comprehensive, and it is overwhelming to say the least,” said museum director Sarah Harrington.
Despite that impression, she said she’s optimistic about the future of a building that is the oldest Russian-built structure in the United States.
“Even though the list is long, I feel really confident about the support that we have from the community and the funds that are available through grants for this type of work, that we’re just gonna get there one step at a time,” she said.
The museum is soliciting donations to make repairs, is seeking grants, and is getting help from the city government.
Built between 1804 and 1808, the building known variously as the Erskine House, Kodiak History Museum and the Russian-American Magazin survived the 1912 Katmai volcanic eruption, two world wars and the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, as well as numerous smaller earthquakes.
The city of Kodiak bought the building in 1972, and it has gone through several rounds of renovations, most recently in 2019. As part of that process, restorers moved exhibit cases that had been in place for decades.
“And when we moved these heavy things off the floor, there was one spot in the middle of that building where the floor bounced like a diving board,” Harrington said.
It was only one example of the way age has taken its toll on the building. The enclosed porch, used as an art gallery and space for museum activities, is unusable because of roof leaks, Harrington said.
Utility pipes run through a space that’s used to store documents, photos and other artifacts, and many of those pipes are old enough that they should be replaced.
The consequences of not doing so may be significant. In 1993, flooding at St. Herman Seminary in Kodiak damaged some historic documents, including the 18th century journal of one of the first Russian visitors to Alaska. In 2009, extensive flooding damaged documents at the Alaska State Archives, and a burst pipe at Anchorage’s Loussac Library harmed its historic Alaska collection in 2017.
As a precaution, Harrington is preparing to move some material to the nearby Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, which was recently renovated and expanded.
Fixing a historic building isn’t easy, and the Magazin has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1962, which means that repairs must meet certain standards when it comes to the look of the building. That adds cost but ensures the building retains its historic qualities.
Kodiak Mayor Pat Branson said the city is aware of the problems and is prepared to take responsibility.
She said she was surprised when she saw pictures of the leaking roof in the local Kodiak Daily Mirror newspaper, but she believes that officials are able to take on the challenge.
“It will get done. I can assure you it will get done. It’s much too important to not get done,” she said.
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