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Landmark in need of help

Russian Orthodox Church beginning to show its age

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2008

 

  Grant Crosby, a historical architect with the National Park Service, examines the log support for the main cupola atop the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in the church's attic Friday morning. The 113-year-old building's walls have been bowing out for many years. The church and park service hope to devise a plan to save the National Historic Landmark from further damage. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Grant Crosby, a historical architect with the National Park Service, examines the log support for the main cupola atop the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in the church's attic Friday morning. The 113-year-old building's walls have been bowing out for many years. The church and park service hope to devise a plan to save the National Historic Landmark from further damage.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

For a building that has withstood volcanic eruptions, a massive earthquake and 113 winters, the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church is wonderfully pristine. But even though the onion-shaped domes sport a fresh coat of paint and the church's new cross immediately attracts the eyes of tourists who visit Old Town Kenai, something's not right.

Inside the church, the north and south walls sit at an angle as the weight of the ceiling bears down upon them. A closer look at the exterior reveals a slight bulge in both walls. Under the building's clapboard siding, the original structure bears signs of decay left by more than a century of rain, sleet, snow and ice.

"The wood is so rotten I can pull it out with my hand," said historical architect Grant Crosby, holding a block of weathered spruce in his hand. "What that tells us is they cut the wall off. You can see the drywall."

Crosby, an employee with the National Park Service, spent most of Thursday and Friday morning surveying the interior and exterior of the church. He inspected everything from the belfry to the foundation to determine what needed to be repaired and how to go about doing it in such a way that would preserve the building's structural integrity without compromising its historical value.

If possible, Crosby said he'd like to do a Dutchman repair, that is, clearing out all the rotted wood and replacing it with new wood, but leaving as much of the original material as possible in tact. For example, the spruce logs underneath the siding were hand-hewn, he said. A Dutchman repair would replace the rotted logs with new hand-hewn spruce logs. Even though the church is privately owned, the National Park Service provides technical assistance and input on any repairs and restoration work that must be done. Because the church is one of two National Historic Landmarks on the Kenai Peninsula, Crosby must stay within a set of guidelines established by the National Park Service when restoring it.

"We don't want to pull everything down and put in two-by-four studs," he said. "We're still scratching our head a bit on this. We're trying to figure out the best method of straightening the walls."

Crosby's findings will be used to apply for a grant through Save America's Treasures. The grant application deadline is May 20 and depending whether or not the project gets funded, he'd like to begin work Spring 2009.

The church council noticed a need for restoration work eight years ago and tried to apply for a grant through Save America's Treasures three years ago, said Dorothy Gray, council secretary. But there wasn't enough specific information to obtain it.

"They felt it was too broad," she said, adding that the original grant application included repairs to the chapel and other parts of the main building besides its structure. "We decided to narrow the focus and prioritize it on the greatest need, which is making sure the church is stabilized for another hundred years at least."

But in order to ensure the Save America's Treasures grant, the church council needs to find sources of funding elsewhere. Steven Peterson, another historical architect with the National Park Service, inspected the church the first time the council applied for the Save America's Treasures grant. In order to obtain the grant, Peterson said it must find local funding that would match it.

"Part of the process of getting funding is defining what it is you want to do and what you need to do," he said. "Once you have the funding in place the next step is undertaking the restoration work itself."

Peterson said because of the community's pride in its historic buildings, many in-kind services, like labor and materials, are donated. There are other grants the church council can apply for as well, he said.

Gray said the church has a membership of about 200 people, with 40 who regularly attend services. But thousands of tourists visit the church each year, making it one of the most photographed places on the peninsula. As soon as Crosby's information is available, the council is embarking a fundraising program while it works on the grant application. Gray said Blazy Construction is busy putting an estimate of what materials and labor would cost, and she said it could be extremely high.

"About 10 years ago when we restored the rectory we had a great outpouring of support from the local community and from the state. We're hoping for the same kind of community support," she said. "I know that people in Kenai and on the Kenai Peninsula recognize the church as an asset to the economy. Many people come here to see the church and walk through Old Town Kenai."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.



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