Hope arises for historical buildings

Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Briny sea air, erosion and vandals have taken their toll on the winter watchman's cabin in Kasilof. However, now that the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation has named the building to its list of the 10 most endangered historic properties in Alaska, perhaps something can be done to restore it to its original state.

In its heyday, the building was one of the largest and most extravagant buildings on the Kenai Peninsula. Its unique architectural qualities and historic importance led the historic preservation board to name it to the list.

"I've not seen another one like it," said Sean Boily, chair of the Projects and Issues Committee for the association. "It is one of the very earliest buildings that has survived. It tells a story in itself and restoration can help further that story."

The watchman's cabin's story begins at some point between 1882 and the late 1890s. It was in 1882 that the second cannery in Alaska was built at the mouth of the Kasilof River off what is now Kalifornsky Beach Road.

Canneries changed hands quite frequently, so the cannery is an incomplete source for dating the cabin. However, while the date is unknown, Kenai Peninsula College professor of anthropology Alan Boraas said he does know that the first inhabitant was most likely Harry M. Weatherbee.

Weatherbee was the superintendent for the cannery, and for five to seven years he was probably the most important person on the peninsula, said Boraas. He also was a photographer by hobby and therefore a number of pictures still exist of both the exterior and interior of the cabin.

The pictures reveal a building hardly comparable to the dilapidated structure that barely stands more than 100 years later.

When Weatherbee and his wife lived there, wallpaper covered the walls and large windows, uncommon in days when it was difficult to heat buildings, let in sunlight throughout the day.

Everything about the original structure exudes extravagance and money. The architect of the house is a mystery, but the first part of the structure is a testament to his craft.

The logs are linked together in a lap-lock joint fashion that one author cites as the only example in the state of Alaska. An addition to the home was built later, and it is obviously the work of a different craftsman than the first. In the end, the house was two stories and had seven rooms.

After Weatherbee vacated the building, it was used to house the winter watchman hired to live there and ensure that the owner's investments were protected from vandals and thieves. The cannery was closed during the depression and in the 1930s the house saw its last occupant.

"Odman Kooly to my knowledge was the last watchman to live there," Boraas said.

The cannery itself was taken apart building by building at some point in the 1950s. During that time, structures originally part of the cannery, such as the McLane building now resting on the roadside of K-Beach, were sold to various individuals or businesses.

After the cannery was gone, the house was abandoned to the elements of time. In the past 60 or more years it has seen its fair share of vandalism.

Siding and entire portions of the structure have been used by campers and revelers alike for campfire fuel. Several times, organizations or individuals have attempted to protect the building, but vandals defy the authorities and tear down plywood boarding up the windows and doors and remove signs stating the historical significance of the building.

"It is one of the oldest buildings on the Kenai Peninsula, if not the oldest," said Boraas. "There is a lot of story to be told through this building, because through this building we will be able to tell the early days of the commercial fishing on the peninsula."

The land the building stands on is in the process of being handed over to the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. For now, the state has stationed people there to serve in the same capacity as campground hosts. They have been able to do small repairs and stand guard to keep further damage from being done, but a lot still needs to be done.

That is where the Alaska Association for Historic Preser-vation comes into play. Now that the building has been named to the endangered list, it is eligible to apply for a $3,000 grant from the association. Before 1998, the association gave out only one grant, but for the past three years enough funds have been available to choose two buildings as recipients.

Application requires substantial effort on the part of the nominating organization or individual because the $3,000 is a matching sum which means the nominating party has to put forth the same amount either in cash or kind.

The association looks for a building with a future when it makes its selections for the grant and the list. Unfortunately, some are too far gone to warrant restoration, said Boily.

But for buildings with hope such as the winter watchman's cabin, which Boily said seems to have tremendous opportunity to be used permanently as possibly a ranger station, Boily's association gladly will foot at least a portion of the restoration bill.

"If nobody does anything, then we are losing a piece of Alaska history," he said. "We are losing it for tourists and for people of the community. It is a link to their own past.

"Frankly, there is a whole other side to it as well. A restored historic building is worth more restored than a new building. Restoring is just better in the big picture."

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