Grant aimed at saving Old Town church

Posted: Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Russian Orthodox church in Old Town is likely the most photographed building in Kenai, especially in summertime when a steady stream of tourists visit.

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Photos By M. Scott Moon
Photos By M. Scott Moon
Troy Feller of BBFM Engineers assesses the foundation of the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church's foundation during a visit with others interested in protecting the National Historic Monument from further decay last week.

Much more than a beautiful example of Russian-style architecture with its bright blue onion-shaped domes contrasting sharply against mint-green rooftops and snow-white clapboard walls, the church dating back more than a century has been the site of countless Kenai religious celebrations from baptisms to weddings to funeral services.

Built between 1893 and 1895, and consecrated in 1895, the building understandably is showing signs of age.

Thankfully, church members, the federal government and the Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites of Alaska organization want the building preserved.

The weight of the dome atop the main church is bearing down on the roof, causing the exterior log walls of the building to bulge outward. The brilliant white clapboard siding -- itself showing signs of weathering -- covers rotting spruce logs of the original church building.

In addition to its importance to the community, the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church is a designated National Historic Landmark.

Always an active religious center, the Russian Orthodox church also once served as the first school on the Kenai Peninsula, teaching Kenaitze Indian children and young adults to read, write, grow vegetables and learn basic building skills. The church served as a judicial center, as well, acting as arbiter between the Russian-American Fur Trading Co. and Natives. It also served as a social center bringing the community together for the welfare of all.

Having been there in so many roles for so many people, it is little wonder many now want to help the church.

Through the combined efforts of ROSSIA and local church members, a $125,492 National Park Service grant has been secured for the stabilization of the historic landmark.

The grant will need a like matching amount through various fund-raising activities, according to Sheri Buretta, president of ROSSIA and chairman of the board of the Chugach Alaska Corp.

Although the Chugach Native corporation has Russian Orthodox churches in all of its villages, including Tatitlek and Chenega on Prince William Sound, Port Graham and Nanwalek on the Kenai Peninsula, Cordova and Nuchek, the Kenai church and the Russian Orthodox church in Ninilchik come under Cook Inlet Region Inc. Alaska Native Corp., Buretta said.

"We're hoping to get CIRI engaged," she said. "There's no doubt they'll participate."

Not all members of ROSSIA are members of the Russian Orthodox church, Buretta said. The group has architects, historians and artists interested in preserving landmarks such as the Kenai church.

Buretta was accompanied in Old Town last week by Grant Crosby, a historical architect with the NPS and treasurer of ROSSIA.

Crosby outlined a four-tiered approach toward the Kenai church's preservation.

Of primary concern are the log walls, he said. The original logs have deteriorated over time due to moisture infiltration from roof runoff and wind driven rain. The logs also lack lateral stability.

With the goal of preserving as much of the original appearance as possible, replacement logs will be shaped by hand to replicate existing tool marks. To stop the outward bow of the walls, steel plates, wooden keys and tension cables will be employed. None will be visible from the interior or exterior of the church.

Secondly, workers plan to install a new foundation under the church to protect it in the event of an earthquake. Currently, bowing log floor joists are shored up by concrete blocks in the dirt crawl space beneath the church.

Hand excavating will be done to make way for the new foundation and an archeologist will monitor the digging.

A representative of the Alaska Historical Commission, Doug Gasek, accompanied Buretta and Crosby to the site last week. Also on hand was Troy Feller, a structural engineer from Anchorage, and Carroll Stockard, an Anchorage architect who is on the ROSSIA board and a member of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Depending on available funding, Crosby said work could include designing and building an entrance ramp to the church that meets Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Currently, the entrance consists of a covered two-step porch.

Preservationists also would like to have a fire detection system installed to include an automatic dialer to local responders.

Lifelong church member Dorothy Gray said the active parish has divine liturgy Sunday mornings at 10, as well as vespers on Saturday evening.

"Visitors are always welcome," Gray said.

She said the church has a membership of about 200 people, 40 of whom regularly attend services.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.



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