Shrinking Sitka: Model builder recreates town as it was in 1840

Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2000

Tiny treasure: A model made by Sitkan Bill Kleinert was displayed at the White House on Christmas.

Bill Kleinert can build four Sitka homes in a day.

Each one fits in the palm of his hand, carefully carved from a basswood block. Even at that rate, it's going to take him awhile to construct the room-sized model of the city as it was 160 years ago for the National Park Service.

``I've got a couple hundred hours in it now and I would imagine I'm going to have at least that many more in it,'' Kleinert said.

Kleinert started making stick-and-tissue model airplanes when he was 10. When he was 13, he became interested in model railroads. Now he's 55, retired from a 25-year career as groundskeeper for the city of Sitka, and still building model planes, boats and train displays.

``Part of me never grew up,'' Kleinert said.

His hobby got him an invitation to Washington, D.C., after he built a model of Sheldon Jackson College's Allen auditorium for the ``Holiday Treasures at the White House'' exhibit.

The model represents one of 114 ``Save America's Treasures'' projects honored in the White House holiday decor. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton headed the project, a public-private partnership between the White House Millennium Project and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Kleinert spent about 100 hours making the 12- by 15-inch auditorium model, following detailed plans drawn up for the Sheldon Jackson Historic Site Preservation Society. He checked the model against the existing auditorium several times, but the model is built to look as the auditorium did in 1914, shortly after it was built.

Kleinert's model was placed in the center of the mantel in the White House's Green Room, where it was seen by tens of thousands of visitors over the holidays. Millions more saw it on television when Hillary Clinton presented the national Christmas decorations.

``You know how you feel when you glimpse yourself on national TV,'' Kleinert said. ``Well that's how I felt.''

Kleinert was also invited to a reception for the artists at the White House, but couldn't go.

``Unfortunately they didn't send the (plane) ticket along with it,'' Kleinert said.

The auditorium model will remain part of the White House collection of Christmas decorations, but Kleinert doesn't mind.

``The joy is the process,'' he said. ``Once it's built and I see how it works and made photographs and stuff, then it can go out the door.''

Though the auditorium model is now his most famous, it was not his most challenging or time-consuming. A few years ago Kleinert got interested in ships and made a scale model of the Titanic for a friend. The 53-inch ship had motors and radio controls, Kleinert said. But it pitched and rolled with the slightest wind and Kleinert had visions of the model following the original Titanic to the bottom, so he took the motor out.

``There was so much work in it, it was two years of spare time,'' Kleinert said. ``I just had visions of two years of spare time going down.''

He also built models of the Russian ship that brought the first Lutheran pastor to Sitka, and of the Lutheran church built in Sitka in 1840. Both are on display at the Lutheran Church in Sitka.

For Kleinert, part of the challenge is doing the research to make his models historically accurate. Along the way he learns pieces of history few people know.

The model of Sitka he is working on now is based on a Russian map from 1845. He's adding the Native homes outside the Russian town limits, using photos of Tlingit homes by photographers Winter and Pond to get the right design.

The Russian houses are based on a series of watercolors by a Finnish sea captain.

``They were trained observers, often used as spies, so they had to be accurate,'' Kleinert said. ``When I get two or three pictures or descriptions that match, then I say, `Well that must be the way it was.'''

When finished, the model city will be 17 feet long and 5 feet wide, with a 2-foot by 5-foot wing on one end. Its permanent home will be in the Sitka Historical Park, but it's designed to be portable and can be taken to classrooms in pieces.

``I kind of built it at third-graders' eyeball height,'' Kleinert said. Adults will get a different perspective.

``That puts your head about 400 feet above the ground, so you get this helicopter view.''

This article first appeared in the Southeast Empire.

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