Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966


Architect tours aging behemoth


National Park Service officials last week started Port Chilkoot Co. on a path toward restoring Fort Seward’s weather-beaten barracks building, following a two-day site visit in Haines.

Although first steps will be small – work this summer will be limited to patching holes in the roof, capping chimneys and plumbing vents, reinstalling interior columns to prevent roof failure, and identifying hazardous materials – other pending improvements will be more noticeable.

A $5,000 state grant will pay for structural and aesthetic improvements to the building’s porch next summer, along with signage there.

The scope of proposed work represents as much attention as the 38,000-square-foot building has seen since the late 1970s, when roughly $200,000 was spent, mostly on a twin structure that burned to the ground in the early 1980s, said company president Lee Heinmiller.

“They liked the building a bunch. They were pleasantly surprised that the bones of the building are in great shape, partly because of the way they’re built” with old-growth fir beams and cedar siding, said Heinmiller, who toured the building with two park service officials and company board member Christina Baskaya.

Some of the dilapidated look of the building is from modifications made to reduce weather damage, including removing soffets that caught water from leaking gutters, Heinmiller said. “It was better than letting them leak into the building.”

Full restoration of the building – that carries a ballpark price of up to $18 million – is far in the future, and “triage” repairs and extensive planning should be done first, said Grant Crosby, regional historic architect for the park service who made a “preliminary condition assessment” of the building.

Crosby said his visit was intended to help create a “road map” for restoration, including identifying groups and agencies that can assist the private company in its efforts. “It’s not going to be cheap. (The price tag) is a pretty frightening number. It’s something that has to be phased and won’t happen overnight. It will take a lot of support from the community and beyond,” he said.

Crosby left company officials with a five-page plan of actions, including “weekend warrior” work such as cutting brush near the foundation, cleaning out the building, connecting gutters and downspouts to move water away from the structure, and sealing up basement windows and doors that leave the building susceptible to vandalism and fire.

“Repairing the roof is critical because water damage telegraphs through the entire building,” undermining floors and walls, Crosby said. Keeping trespassers out of the building also is critical, he said. “We know people are getting in there. That leads to more problems with vandalism and other kinds of damage.”

The building – which has been used for decades as a storage space – should be cleared out for a closer inspection and to reduce stress on the structure and reduce load in the event of fire, he said. “What we really want is a clear assessment of the building. Some rooms we couldn’t even get into to check their condition.”

Finding outside funding for improvements may be an uphill climb, Crosby wrote in his recommendations. “The funding environment for historic preservation projects has become increasingly difficult. The available funds are typically awarded to non-profit 501c3 organizations who demonstrate a historic preservation mission. If the formation of a non-profit is not realistic for supporters of Fort William H. Seward, consider working with a local or regional non-profit organization to apply for grant funding on behalf of an informal ‘Friends Group’ to initiate projects,” Crosby wrote.

Other options for funding include grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Alaska Humanities Forum, and the State of Alaska Department of Commerce. The company also could apply for the Alaska Association of Historic Preservation “10 Most Endangered List.”

With an endangered listing comes eligibility to apply for grants up to $4,000, but also increased exposure to potential funders, including the State Historic Preservation Office. The listing’s grant money can be used for “brick and mortar projects” and can be used to leverage other funding sources, he wrote.

Documents that should be developed include a condition assessment report, with recommendations for treatment, a historic structure report, and a Historic American Buildings Survey. Contracting with a private sector historical architect early in the process also is an “important consideration” for maintaining the building’s historic integrity, Crosby wrote.

Factors that work in the project’s favor include that Fort Seward is a National Historic Landmark, one of only 49 in Alaska and 2,500 in the United States.

Port Chilkoot Company’s Heinmiller said that although the early paperwork requirements seem onerous, it’s vital to securing funding.

Company board member Annette Smith remembers when the barracks was used to house the Sheldon Museum collection and to stage shows performed by the Lynn Canal Community Players.

Smith said she was encouraged by the park service visit. “It’s great to have their interest and they loved the building. If we go the route of working with park service and government agencies, it will be great to have them like it so much. But that’s something we need to decide, if we want to go for non-profit status.”

She said there’s a responsibility of stewardship that goes with historic buildings. “It’s also a landmark for the town. I’d hate to lose it. It anchors the fort and anchors the town. It’s a treasure, really.”