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College hall opens again after 4 years

Posted: June 17, 2011 - 6:49am  |  Updated: June 17, 2011 - 6:50am

SITKA — Boarded up and cluttered with junk for the better part of four years, North Pacific Hall re-opened this month with eight Sitka Fine Arts Camp staffers in residence at the former Sheldon Jackson College dormitory.

Located amid a set of historic brown-shingled buildings that form SJC’s quadrangle, North Pacific Hall had not been used since 2007, when financial troubles forced the closure of the private college.

But just about 100 years to the day after the school’s core campus was completed, North Pacific is back open thanks to a massive volunteer effort that began after the Fine Arts Camp, through its parent organization Alaska Arts Southeast, took over SJC earlier this year.

The Fine Arts Camp is holding its “mini session” for elementary school students this week, with some 240 middle school students and faculty members coming in this weekend for the two-week session which runs through June 25.

Another 250 or so students are signed up for the Fine Arts Camp’s high school session, June 26-July 10.

The camp, founded on the SJC campus in 1972, has returned home after five years at Mt. Edgecumbe High School.

The restoration of North Pacific, which opened in June 1911, along with a handful of adjacent buildings, is just part of the ongoing revitalization of the 20-acre core campus in downtown Sitka.

Roger Schmidt, the Fine Arts Camp’s executive director, got the keys to the campus on Feb. 1, and it took about a month to get the plumbing working at North Pacific.

Once there was water, the cleaning and restoration effort began.

“Everything about North Pacific Hall is symbolic of the whole volunteer effort,” Schmidt said this week, during a walk around the campus. “The process has been an incredible community project.”

There are 35 bedrooms in North Pacific, with 41 beds. Each room was thoroughly cleaned, painted and adorned with a quilt from the personal collection of award-winning Sitka quilter Janine Holzman.

The entryway to the historic building has been scraped free of thick latex paint, exposing the original Douglas fir, and the arch above the door has been repainted. Inside, pictures that show North Pacific when it was a dorm for female high school students hang on the walls near the staircase.

And upstairs, a faculty lounge with a view of Crescent Harbor now features bookshelves lined with volumes salvaged from the college’s Stratton Library.

For those who saw the building in February, when it was cold, dilapidated, boarded up and full of miscellaneous office supplies, it has been a remarkable transformation.

“No one imagined we’d get this far,” Schmidt said. “You don’t anticipate the level of volunteerism.”

Mary Hames, a Fine Arts Camps board member who was closely involved in the decorating of the faculty lounge, did not look back fondly on the early days of the North Pacific restoration.

“It was overwhelming,” Hames said, joking that she didn’t particularly enjoy visiting the building at the time.

Besides the clutter, she said, tiles were broken, the walls were cracked and crumbling and light fixtures were dangling. And the furnishings that were in decent shape were from the 1970s.

“The stuff was tacky and the tacky stuff was broken,” Schmidt said.

Now, North Pacific Hall is set to house most of the artists headed to town to serve as faculty at the Fine Arts Camps.

On Tuesday, Hames was armed with a master list of all the bed assignments, and declared herself the “house mother.”

When Schmidt took over SJC back in February he had a 90-day plan to get the campus into shape for the start of the 2011 camp. He had to make sure the buildings would be safe, and that they could be legally occupied by his staff and campers.

Anything beyond that was considered extra.

But the volunteer effort, and the skills of Sitkans willing to help, quickly exceeded his expectations. Schmidt is no longer keeping track of volunteer hours, but said more than 400 Sitkans have donated in excess of 12,000 hours rehabbing the 20 buildings at SJC now owned by the Fine Arts Camp.

“I never imagined we’d get this far,” Schmidt said, adding that he had envisioned his faculty sleeping in far more spartan conditions than what will await them at North Pacific.

The Hames center was the first building to re-open at SJC, and will be used as a theater for the Fine Arts Camp’s nightly art shares.

Fraser and Whitmore halls, which also opened in 1911, have had makeovers, too, and students will be housed over the next month on the second-floors of those buildings. Most of the Fine Art Camp students will stay at Sweetland Hall, a building constructed in the late 1980s.

Schmidt said he began thinking about taking over the SJC campus almost exactly a year ago, when the 2010 mini session was wrapping up. Talks between the SJC Board of Trustrees and the University of Dubuque had fallen apart, and with the school still holding significant debt, it seemed as though the campus could be headed to foreclosure.

Even the core campus was at risk of being subdivided and sold.

But the trustees had said all along that they wanted to give the school’s main buildings to an educational entity and as land sales helped reduce the school’s debt, Schmidt embarked on a feasibility study to determine if the camp could return to downtown Sitka.

Even after the stars aligned, and the Fine Arts Camp was given the debt-free core campus, some still wondered if a local arts nonprofit could handle a restoration project believed to involve millions of dollars of deferred maintenance.

“It was a leap of faith,” Schmidt said. “The leap was that the community cared about this place.”

Schmidt said that question has been answered emphatically, though there is much more work to be done.

After taking control of the campus, Schmidt began a capital campaign aimed at bringing in $500,000 by Oct. 1, the end of the nonprofit’s fiscal year.

So far, about $200,000 has been raised.

Schmidt said he had largely turned over the day-to-day operations of the camps to year-round staffer Kenley Jackson, who is her fourth year with the Fine Arts Camp, so he can focus on the larger issues related to the long-term use of the campus.

Once the 2011 camp wraps up, Schmidt will take a little time off before diving back into issues related to the stable of buildings he now controls.

At the top of the list? Getting the historic Allen Auditorium, neighbor to North Pacific Hall, back in use.

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