August 8, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 31

Fort Seward fire hall restoration under way

To preserve or restore – it’s a question Joanne Waterman is thinking about a lot now that she and partner Phyllis Sage have purchased the former Port Chilkoot Volunteer Fire Department building.

Used primarily for storage since the cities of Port Chilkoot and Haines merged in 1970, the structure has deteriorated, following a disjointed building history. “I would say it’s the poorest-built building in the fort,” Waterman said.

“It was built in three different sections. First, there was the tower, then there was what I call the tunnel. An additional four feet were later added onto the front of the tunnel.”

At some point, a cinder block chimney was put in.

The original hose tower stood an estimated 63 feet tall, but was trimmed to 27 feet. “I haven’t been able to find out how it got shortened – someone told Phyllis they thought it was a fire, but they weren’t sure,” Waterman said.

The redwood-sided tower and the metal-sided “tunnel” both have cement floors, replete with “dips and holes.” Recently, local carpenter Terry Jacobson used 22 jacks to slowly lift the building and pour a stem wall to replace rotten beams it had been sitting on.

Last week, Jacobson was “sistering” in new wood to replace portions of rotten wall studs in the tower he found after removing diagonal sheathing.

“Terry and I are always talking about aspects of preservation versus restoration,” she said, describing her approach as “restoration with an eye toward preservation.”

Lee Heinmiller, president of the Port Chilkoot Co., the largest landowner at Fort Seward, said selling the building to Waterman and Sage was a good move for the firm. “We’ve got plenty of buildings to work on. If a neighbor wants to take it over and work on it, that’s fine with us.”

Terms of the sale include that the owners “maintain the building’s historic integrity.”

Most of the redwood siding remains sound and can be re-used, but because buying new redwood is so “cost prohibitive,” cedar will be used to replace unsound siding.

Changes to the structure will include addition of insulation, plus two new windows on each side of what is now a dark “tunnel” to bring in natural light. Though the original tower had no window – it was used to hang water hoses so they could dry – windows were added later.

“Though the windows that are there now have been there a long time, I will have to heat the place and I would like to replace them with energy-efficient ones,” Waterman said. “I want it to be a functional building I can do something with.”

Waterman and Sage bought the building in July 2012. “It was obvious it was in need of love,” Waterman said. “We definitely wanted to save the building.”

The structure was built in 1904, according to Heinmiller. For most of the past 40 years, it served as storage space for the Haines Volunteer Fire Department, under a $1 annual lease agreement with Port Chilkoot Co. Most fire equipment has been moved out, including an antique fire truck used for years in local parades.

Fireman Al Badgley said the old fire truck and most everything else was moved to the fire hall at Lutak Inlet. Most were back-up materials, such as foam used for fighting oil fires and old hoses the department loans to the Haines Borough for washing down streets.

The old fire hall sits next to Waterman and Sage’s home and the Alaska Guardhouse, the couple’s bed and breakfast business, once the jailhouse for Fort Seward.

“We have no hard, definite plans for the fire hall,” Waterman said. “I know people want us to, but we don’t. I imagine it’ll be a retail space.

“I don’t think it will be an extension of the bed and breakfast, because it would mess too much with the integrity of the building to divide it into rooms. It’s in a wonderful area for tourism. It could be a coffee shop, a restaurant. The possibilities are endless.”

Because Fort Seward is on the National Historic Register of Places, Waterman and Sage may be able to benefit from tax breaks for work they do on the building. But because it’s privately owned, it likely won’t qualify for grants.

Waterman said they’re doing the work out of-pocket, and they have no set completion date for improvements.

Heinmiller, who grew up in the Fort and served as a teen-age volunteer firefighter, worked one of the department’s last calls, a blaze off FAA Road in log cabins that had housed the Army’s sled dog teams.

“It was fun. Everybody would run down (to the fire hall), slap on hats and boots and blast off,” he said.