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Saved! The lodge at the Shrine of St. Therese gets a makeover

Posted: August 12, 2013 - 8:03pm  |  Updated: August 13, 2013 - 12:01am
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John Gitkov and caretaker Jeanne Jordan share a laugh in front of the remodeled Retreat Lodge at the Shrine of St. Therese on Wednesday. Gitkov organized a small group of volunteers to save the structure which was originally built in 1933.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
John Gitkov and caretaker Jeanne Jordan share a laugh in front of the remodeled Retreat Lodge at the Shrine of St. Therese on Wednesday. Gitkov organized a small group of volunteers to save the structure which was originally built in 1933.

Childhood memories and a fear of regret motivated John Gitkov save the lodge at the Shrine of St. Therese. The log cabin structure — which was built in 1933 — was slated for demolition in September because of an engineer’s report that said it would cost nearly $1 million for repairs. The Diocese of Juneau, which owns the shrine and the lodge, wasn’t sure it was worth salvaging.

Through the years, the roof of the lodge had become overloaded with plant growth, as anything in Southeast will if not properly maintained. The wood doors were coated with grime. The building wasn’t structurally sound.

“We had seismic problems, cracks and rot in the logs and so I came out here, drilled some holes and did some testing,” Gitkov said. “I went back to the Diocese and told them, ‘Hey, I think this can be done.’”

Gitkov — a lifetime Juneau resident — proposed a plan that passed muster with the engineer and a skeptical Diocese board and would only cost $115,000.

“I do marine salvage on ships and so when they said it was insurmountable, you know, we’re not having to work with the tides. Anything is easy after that, in my opinion,” Gitkov said. “You just study up, read the engineer’s report and figure out what needs to be done. It’s not really rocket science. It’s just about hard work and getting people to help do it.”

Gitkov recruited some of his friends to volunteer their time and put two of his employees on the project. After a long summer of repairs and cleaning, the 80-year-old lodge now has a new lease on life.

“There was 750 pounds of trees and moss on the rooftops. We removed over 1,200 pounds of stuff from the basement. You couldn’t even tell there was a cross on the wooden door,” Gitkov said as he toured the property. “I told them it’s not worth doing all those repairs on the engineer’s report if it looks awful on the outside. Everything has been painted from top to bottom, pressure washed with acid and given three coats of sealer.”

The Shrine of St. Therese is about 20 miles from downtown Juneau on the Glacier Highway. There aren’t many houses on that stretch of road as you near the shrine, but the white one that sits on the opposite side of Pearl Harbor is where Gitkov lived as a child.

“This was like a place you could run away to,” Gitkov said. “It was a beautiful playground growing up.”

At first, Gitkov started spending time at the lodge and the shrine to get away from his five sisters at home.

“When I was older I’d go out there and smoke cigarettes. It was just a cool place to hang out,” Gitkov said. “Sometimes the caretaker was here and baking cookies. It seemed like a longer walk when I was a kid, even thought it’s only about a third of a mile.”

Gitkov said convincing the Diocese to put up the funding to save the building wasn’t easy. He said he was met with a doubtful board that had already unanimously agreed to demolish the lodge. The engineer’s report said that the building had outlived its usefulness. Gitkov’s last chance to save his childhood refuge was to guilt the board, and so he did.

“You can look around the Pioneers Home and you can easily say that a lot of people around there have outlived their usefulness, too, but they’re just like the building,” Gitkov said. “I think both still have a lot to offer. That was the guilt trip I laid on them and they ended up voting to keep the building.”

Now the lodge might last another 50 years, Gitkov said.

“You know, there are certain things I hate to ever regret in life. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘I should have bought that,’ or ‘I should have thanked someone,’ and it’ll bother me afterwards,” Gitkov said. “I just felt like if I didn’t give it my best shot and one day there was a hole in the ground where this historic structure was, I’d have thought, ‘You know, I probably should have said something.’”

• Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at jennifer.n.canfield@juneauempire.com.

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