SITKA — The Sitka Fine Arts Camp has announced receiving a $500,000 donation toward the reconstruction of Allen Auditorium from a frequent visitor to Sitka whose home is in Alabama.
The gift was made by Carol Odess of Birmingham, Ala., who has been coming to Sitka the past nine years on fishing trips.
“This is going to be really significant,” said Roger Schmidt, executive director of Sitka Fine Arts Camp. “This is going to put us within striking distance of finishing it.”
SFAC is part of Alaska Arts Southeast, the nonprofit organization that became owner of the historic Sheldon Jackson College campus in January 2011, four years after the college shut its doors.
Odess, who has been coming here on fishing trips since 2003, said she always noticed the beautiful campus. She would stop over in town for a day before flying across the island to Baranof Wilderness Lodge for for her fishing vacations. During her time in Sitka, she loved her walks in Sitka National Historical Park, but on her way, she would look up at the SJ campus and think, “Wouldn’t it have been fantastic to go to school there?’” she said. “It’s beautiful.”
She said that after she saw the boards covering the buildings’ windows following the school’s closure in 2007, Odess became concerned about the future of the campus, specifically that the buildings that were in danger of being torn down.
About a year ago, fly fishing friends of hers in Sitka referred her to Schmidt, who shared the story of the donations and the thousands of hours of volunteer labor that have gone into the restoration of the campus. She was in particular intrigued by Allen Hall, and the theater downstairs. She and her husband have donated over the years to arts and health care causes under their charitable foundation. The John S. and Carol S. Odess Theatre at University of Alabama-Birmingham is named for her and her husband.
“When I heard there was a theater downstairs (in Allen Hall), I thought, I’ve got to come and see,” Odess said. “We came, we saw, we conquered. I’m thrilled to be able to do that.”
The gift to the campus is a personal donation from Odess. Schmidt announced that theater in Allen Hall will be named the Odess Theater in honor of Carol and her late husband, John.
Odess said she hopes her donation inspires others to “step up to the plate” so Allen can be finished, with more donations and the continued volunteer work by community members and others. Odess, who now spends several months in town every year, has already volunteered on campus projects this year and looks forward to more in the future.
Schmidt said he also has enjoyed spending time with her, and hearing about her connection to and affection for Sitka. Schmidt said Sitka reminded Odess of the way the South used to be, with people lending a hand when it was needed.
“It means a lot to me that she loves the community so much and the parts she loves is about the people, and the giving part,” Schmidt said. Schmidt also likes that she has an enthusiasm for “black box theater,” a more simple space for small and experimental theater productions.
“It’s where art starts and where kids have a place to experiment and try things,” Schmidt said. “She’s behind kids, she’s behind community and she believes in Sitka.”
Classrooms on the second sgtory of Allen have already been refurbished into professional-quality dance studios for dance classes during camp, and are now being used by the Highland Dance classes. The unfinished theater space was used during this year’s Fine Arts Camp sessions for Artshares and other community events.
The history of Allen Hall includes its use as a gym, a meeting place for religious services, and a performing arts space for the college and community.
In 1995, after structural failure was discovered in the building, it was condemned as unsafe and Sheldon Jackson College planned to tear it down. A group of Sitkans not affiliated with the college formed a nonprofit, the Allen Memorial Preservation Project, Inc., and interceded with the SJ trustees to hold off on demolition until AMPPI could explore options for preserving and restoring the building. It is the central structure in a formally designed academic complex built in 1911.
AMPPI raised the first $1.1 million for rehabilitating the building, which also received major grants from the Rasmuson and other foundations. The building was stabilized and work on the interior was under way when the project was put on hold in period before the college’s long-standing financial problems forced it to shut down academic operations in 2007.
Schmidt said he is thrilled by the Odess’ donation, which will bring SFAC close to finishing the centerpiece of the campus.
“When we took over the campus, I kept feeling over and over again, we’ve got too much to do, don’t touch Allen, it’s too big of a project to take on,” Schmidt said. But last fall, that changed. “We felt, it’s the center of the campus, it’s too important, too beautiful to leave on the wayside. In a way, it’s symbolic of what would be a success or a failure. I felt we had to get it going. And the only way it would be completed was by taking a risk with it.”