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Rescuscitating house of history

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2000

The historic Wickersham House may get another chance at a full life.

Once one of Juneau's main tourist attractions, the 1899 residence could emerge from hibernation with the judicious application of creative thinking by the Wickersham Society.

The society applied for a new business license Dec. 30. It has scheduled a membership drive and tea from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the house, said society President Laurie Ferguson Craig.

``We've been dormant for a while,'' Craig said. ``Now we see that we're needed again. Saturday, we'll serve tea, but the real purpose of the meeting is invigorating the society and brainstorming about this wonderful treasure.''

Who: Purchased by territorial official James Wickersham in the 1920s. Judge Wickersham lived here from 1928 until his death in 1939.

What: The Hammond/Wickersham House; an important element in the architectural and historic unity of the neighborhood.

When: Built in 1899 on part of an old placer mining claim by Frank Hammond, owner of Sheep Creek Mining Co.

Where: 213 Seventh Street; on Chicken Ridge, one of Juneau's oldest neighborhoods.

Surveyed: Alaska Heritage Resources Survey, 1972. Inventory of Historic Sites and Structures: Juneau, 1986. Chicken Ridge Historic Buildings Survey, 1992.

Listed: National Register of Historic Places, 1976.

Tour days: For about 30 years, the judge's step-niece, Ruth Allman, used what she called The House of Wickersham as a museum, entertaining visitors with tales of Alaska's early days and flaming sourdough waffles she prepared herself.

Recent owners: The property was acquired by Alaska Airlines in 1968, which retained Allman as lecturer-curator. Then it was acquired by Robert Giersdorf of Alaska Tour & Marketing Service, who also retained Allman.

Current owner: Purchased by state Department of Natural Resources in 1984.

The society plans a partnership with the state Division of Parks, owner of the residence, which was once the home of James Wickersham, a frontier judge, delegate to Congress and advocate of Native rights.

Ten years ago, ``the hope was that the house could be made a little more self-sustaining,'' said Bill Garry, area parks superintendent. Basic utilities for the house run $6,000 to $8,000 a year, Garry said.

``A house like that has a huge amount of deferred maintenance - things in need of repair going back many years,'' Garry said.

From 1989 to 1994, state parks successfully obtained one large capital projects grant of about $250,000 - used to stabilize the concrete foundation. The grant also funded repainting the exterior and replacing the exterior wall facing downtown.

In 1994, another grant, $60,000, allowed replacement of the roof. But the house's custom wooden gutters and some leaking windows still need replacement.

The house was in fairly good shape in 1995 - good enough that the state asked the public for proposals, and put it out for competitive bids. A five-year permit was awarded to the Southeast Alaska Guidance Association, a nonprofit youth services group.

SAGA ended its Wickersham effort early in 1999. Except for special appointments or rentals arranged with a live-in caretaker, the house remained closed last summer. Plans to use it for a school were also dropped.

``The idea now,'' Garry said, ``is that the Wickersham Society will become nonprofit and will assist the state in repair and management. But we won't sign a permit with them, and it won't be for `commercial use.'''

Ruth Allman, niece of Wickersham's second wife, gave tours of the house in the 1970s and '80s, bringing in bus-loads of tourists. Today, however, ``buses are no longer an option,'' said Garry.

``It's physically not appropriate in my opinion to pursue an aggressive commercial posture. I don't think house museums anywhere in the country make money without an endowment or benefactor behind them,'' said Garry, who has been involved with the house for 10 years.

``We have never received a dime from the Legislature to operate the house - only grants to build things, grants for capital improvements.''

Wickersham Society President Craig also has a long involvement with the house. ``I first went into it on the second day I was in Juneau in 1969,'' Craig recalled. ``And I went to work for Ruth Allman in 1976.''

In the days Allman conducted tours, the house was full of memorabilia Wickersham collected from around the state.

``There were treasures all over the walls and every one meant something; and as Ruth went through the house, she would point out all these things, and tell stories,'' said Craig, a visual artist.

``I have a sense of duty to Ruth, knowing what the house was,'' she said.

Although the society has many ``wonderful ideas'' for the house's future, ``It's not going to be the kind of place it was when Ruth lived there,'' Craig said. ``But we want to bring it back to life.''

Craig is looking for donations of furniture from the '20s, '30s and '40s and would like cabinets built to securely display select memorabilia.

``We want to preserve it and its integrity,'' she said. ``That means big weddings with rock music don't work. Big buses don't work. A charter school would mean too much wear and tear.''

When James Michener's ``Alaska'' was published, a reception was held there for the author. That's the kind of event Craig would like to bring to the house. She would also like to have low-impact tours during the tourist season.

``We want to see it have a life on a year-round basis, but in the right scale,'' she said. ``We can have catered lunches. We want to use it in a way that will honor the judge and Ruth and still be central to the community of Juneau.''



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