Last summer, two National Park Service architects scaled the top of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Juneau, peeled back some white shingles and found just what they were hoping to see: signs of its original ornamentation.
“We could see what we call ‘ghosting’ of where the trim pieces, the false windows and the lunettes used to be,” said Anne E. Matsov, a historical architect with the NPS’ Alaska Regional Office in Anchorage.
“Based on historic photographs and the evidence we found, we’re really getting accurate information of what this used to look like.”
The little historic blue-and-white church on Fifth Street used to have scalloped trim, long false windows and half-moon-shaped decorations called lunettes on what’s known as the “drum.” The drum is the structure on top of the roof that holds up the onion-shaped dome with the recognizable Russian Orthodox Cross on top.
Some time during the church’s 121-year history, white shingles were placed over the drum to weatherize the building from wind and rain. They also covered the decor.
Now, an Anchorage-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska is helping restore the drum to its original grandeur. Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, or ROSSIA for short, received $12,000 in funding for the project through a state grant (Alaska Anniversaries Commemoration Project Grant) and through the Rasmuson Foundation.
Work started at the church earlier this month as construction crews put up scaffolding and tore off the shingles. A local construction company, Alaska Commercial Contractors, was contracted for the job.
“Our best guess is there was water infiltration problems early on” in the church’s history, Matsov said of why the shingles were installed. “We can see that there’s indication that there was water damage as they’re removing the parts and exposing the original work.”
Deacon Paul Erickson, who has led the church’s small congregation for the past 10 years, remembers at one time there were five or six bathtubs in the church building to catch rainfall.
Construction crews are also taking final measurements of the paint lines that show where the ornamentation used to be on the drum. The new decor will be custom made and look historic to fit with the aged building. The new pieces will be installed by the ACC crew in August.
“We’re really proud of this project,” Matsov, the project’s manager, said. “In stages, ROSSIA is cobbling together some funding sources, and with that, they’re slowly in pieces trying to do some rehab work so this church will be around for the next 100 years.”
St. Nicholas, originally built in 1894, is the oldest continuously functioning Russian Orthodox church in Alaska and hosts services to this day. A National Park Service designated historic place, it’s also heavily visited by tourists.
Unlike other Russian Orthodox churches in Alaska that were founded by Russians, St. Nicholas was founded largely by the Tlingit. Native people gravitated toward the Orthodox Church at a time when its use of Native languages in worship services was unique. American missionaries were instructed by the government and church leaders to suppress the use of Native languages and customs. As a result, many Tlingit embraced the religion and were eager to develop a parish.
“It’s unique compared to other churches, compared to other missionaries,” Bishop David Mahaffey of Sitka, a ROSSIA board member, said by phone about the church.
“The other reason it’s unique is because of its style,” he added, referring to the church’s octagon shape. There aren’t very many of those anymore, anywhere.”
The church, and others in rural Alaska and in Russia, has eight sides for practical reasons: they keep it from blowing over in heavy winds.
Despite St. Nicholas’ historical significance and appeal to visitors, it receives little support from the state of Alaska, city of Juneau or tourism industry, said ROSSIA’s chairwoman Sheri Buretta. ROSSIA obtains most of its funding from grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Rasmuson Foundation and from donations.
“ROSSIA has been working on the church for over 10 years with little support from the Juneau community,” Buretta said by email. “We have received a couple of small grants and one $50,000 state capital request but mostly work on the church as we are able to scrape together funding.”
She added, “As much as the tourism industry highlights the church for their visitors to Juneau, we have not seen any support from them.”
ROSSIA obtained funding to restore the church’s bell tower in 2012, to re-roof the rectory (the building adjacent to the church that used to house priests and families) in 2013 and to fix the church’s foundation in 2014.
After the drum’s decor is restored, the next project will be to restore the original entrance to the rectory, which now serves as a bookstore and gift shop. The entryway used to be in the front of the building, but when Fifth Street was built, it was moved to the side.
The plan is to move the whole building back about five feet so the entrance can still be in the front without interfering with the road. Funding has not been obtained yet.
ROSSIA also recently received a $5,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help with fire protection and electrical engineering design.