KETCHIKAN — When Historic Ketchikan, Inc., has its sights set on a project, Executive Director Stephen Reeve doesn’t wait around for conveniences like heating to move in and set up shop.
When he’s ready, he’s ready.
In agreement with the Episcopal Church, Historic Ketchikan has begun the project of saving the Yates Memorial Hospital building from the wrecking ball and restoring it to its former glass-paned glory.
Reeve can hardly wait to get started. He has relocated his office from the Star building on Creek Street to a large room on the main floor of the Yates building on Mission Street
“I want people to know that we’re working here,” he said. “I want them to know we’re serious about the renovation, and for them to see some movement here.”
Reeve said one of the crowning features of Ketchikan is the collection of characters that have lived in the town and the stories that surround them.
“We have a town full of stories that we’ve not done a good job telling,” Reeve said. “That’s what Historic Ketchikan is all about.”
In 2011, Historic Ketchikan worked with the Ketchikan Historical Commission to install about 15 Colorful Character signs around town that provide little stories about Ketchikan’s history. Reeve said “heritage tourism” is popular right now, evidenced by the lines of tourists who read the signs and soak up Ketchikan’s stories.
“If we play it right and keep the old buildings, like the old Bon Marche and others, it’ll really enhance us as a heritage tourist destination,” he said.
Historic Ketchikan is working on a number of projects, including a waterfront boardwalk that would stretch from the end of the Thomas Basin breakwater to the end of Berth 4.
Historic Ketchikan received a grant from the state and the City of Ketchikan to begin a few renovations to the entrance of the building.
Stairs to the front porch of the Yates building are roped off, and the entry is not quite sturdy, but Reeve said by summer the building will be ready for through the front — he currently enters the building from a back entrance. In the bottom floor, exhibits will be set up to let people know about the history of Ketchikan and the role of the building in the community.
Poster-size photographs are printed and lying on the floor, waiting to be selected and arranged on the walls to entertain curious eyes.
In 1905, the Episcopal Church built a clergy house just southeast of the church. The building was converted into a hospital in 1910 with $4,000 provided by a wealthy woman from Rochester, N.Y., in the memory of her father, Arthur Yates. Thus, the Arthur Yates Memorial Hospital was born.
The building operated as a 12-bed hospital until 1925, when Ketchikan Hospital was built on Bawden Street. In 1941, The Alaska Sportsman magazine took up residence in the building, along with curio shop Alaska Specialties, until 1966.
Former assistant editor, Ethel Dassow, called the building big and drafty.
“The Sportsman took up residence then in a big, rangy, blue-gray house on Mission street, which must have been as old as the city itself,” Dassow said, in a letter. “It was a drafty old place. Winter wind whipped through it as if through a picket fence. We girls wore fleece-lined boots and ski trousers to work on cold days, our space heaters kept blowing fuses, and the cost of feeding the floor furnace surely would have fueled a B-29 on a bombing mission! Emery (Tobin) had the building fully insulated after the war, and that made all the difference.”
In 1946, publisher Emery Tobin built an addition onto the back of the Yates building, now known as the Tobin building, to house the press for the expanding magazine.
The Tobins sold the magazine in 1958 but kept the curio shop that was located in the front part of the building on Mission Street. The couple retired in 1966 and moved south.
Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce moved into the Yates building in 1967 and stayed until 1978. The building was vacant until the Seamen’s Center occupied the space from 1984 to 2003. The building has been vacant since then.
The building might be almost 110 years old, but according to the building assessment completed by Historic Ketchikan, the flooring, ornamental woodwork and most of the windows are original to the house. Some of the original siding remains attached to the building under the exterior aluminum siding.
Reeve said most of the restoration work for the building will be in the basement and involve stabilizing the foundation and installing a better drain system to move water away from the foundation. According to the assessment, the piling caps are still in good condition.
One of the main features, a window-paned porch, will be restored to the entrance of the building.
Reeve said the nonprofit group recently completed a historic survey of Newtown, and has been asked by the city to do a revitalization project on the neighborhood. He said the project would stretch from the tunnel to the corner around Talbots, including Hopkins Alley.
Historic Ketchikan is also working with the city to find ways to rescue derelict buildings.
“These are buildings that are run down and would get demolished if we couldn’t find a way to save them,” Reeve said. “We’re trying to find a way to help people, either the property owner or investors, to navigate their way through building codes. We’re also working with people who are not able to care for the building to find purchasers who will restore the building.”
Reeve said the process involved for renovating buildings is to raise money and get the work done quickly. Stringing the process over a number of years can give people project-fatigue.
“We are trying hard to get every grant we can, and sometime next summer we will really go gung-ho and finance it to get the building done,” Reeve said. “You want to show the community that historic preservation can work and be successful.”
Reeve has projected the Yates project will cost $500,000 “on the high end,” and Historic Ketchikan is moving along with fundraising for the building renovation. He said there has been interest in the occupying the finished building from clinics, a pharmacy, and a coffee shop, but they aren’t ready to commit to tenants until the project is further along.
“Some things we can delay, but we want to do the porch no matter what,” Reeve said. “It’s not easy to restore buildings. But it’s very worth it to preserve the history and significance of the town.”