Chilkoot Barracks gets a face-lift


July 11, 2019

Annette Smith

The restoration of the historical cedar siding in progress.

The last remaining barracks building of Haines' historic Fort Seward received much-needed renovations this month, with the help of a matching grant from the Office of History and Archeology at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, and funding by the property owners, Port Chilkoot Co.

"It's the most important building in the fort," said project manager for the grant, Annette Smith. "Without the barracks, you just have a bunch of old houses."

Fort Seward is a on the National Register of Historic Places as the last remaining army fort from the gold rush period in Alaska. Built in 1904, the 39,000 square foot barracks building originally housed more than 200 soldiers. It's the architectural anchor of the fort, Smith said. "The bones of the building are really good, it's just that it hasn't been taken care of."

The barracks building hasn't been lived in since it was purchased by the Port Chilkoot Co. in 1945. Cedar shingles have blown off of the walls, nails have rusted and the ceiling has deteriorated significantly. When Gary Heger, owner of Heger Construction Co., came to work on the barracks building, "it was in quite a state of disrepair." Heger has renovated several historic buildings in Southeast including the more-than-100-year-old Pack Train building in downtown Skagway. He worked on the barracks building for a couple of weeks, he said, replacing about 2,500 feet of cedar siding and trim boards, and repairing several broken windows.

"We plugged the holes basically," Heger said. "This work replacing the siding was a Band-Aid." Heger thinks the new siding will last a long time, but the repairs were only a small step in a much larger project of building restoration. "It would be nice to see (the barracks) maintained and actually renovated and kept up," he said. "It would be great if they could find some money somewhere to renovate that barracks building and use it."

Receiving the state grant "was the first time in a dog's age that there's been any money coming through... for historic preservation," said Lee Heinmiller, president of the Port Chilkoot Co.'s board of directors. He said, the company has spent about $20,000 on renovations and the state grant will reimburse up to $9,000.

The barracks building has received government funding for preservation in the past. In 2014, it received a matching grant from the Alaska Historical Commission to stabilize the front porch. In 2016, another historical office grant allowed the Port Chilkoot Co. to install flashing around the perimeter of the roof to protect it from weathering.

In the late 1970s, $50,000 in state funding was allocated to restore two barracks buildings, but shortly afterwards one of the buildings was destroyed in a fire. "We spent the next decade paying back $464 a month to repay the loan to the state for a building that wasn't there," Heinmiller said.

At that time, the Port Chilkoot Co. received a financial estimate for how much it would cost to restore one of the barracks buildings, including the price of installing a sewage system and electricity. The estimate came in at $7 million to $8 million. Two years ago, architects from the National Parks Service who visited the barracks estimated the same renovations would cost $18.4 million.

Heinmiller said the Port Chilkoot Co. board of directors hasn't been able to figure out a cost-effective use for the building that would justify more extensive repairs. One option they considered was a hotel, but after talking with the McDowell Group, an economic consulting firm, they realized there was not enough business in Haines for another hotel, Heinmiller said.

"If you're not coming up with something that's for the actual use of the building, keeping the building alive and well is equally important," he said.

According to Smith, who serves on the Port Chilkoot Co. board of directors, the company has discussed using the center section of the building for artist studios, and they are working on a roof assessment survey to make that a possibility.


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