Juneau's Cultural Loss

City's art community remembers McPhetres Hall

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2006

When Holy Trinity Episcopal Church completed its parish hall in 1956, the new space quickly became a popular venue.

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"There were not too many places for cultural events to take place, and the hall evolved into that rather naturally," said Mark Boesser, church rector from 1959 to 1972. "There were always groups that asked if they can put in for this use or for that, simply because of the limited space in the downtown area."

The parish hall, renamed McPhetres Hall after the Rev. Samuel McPhetres died of a heart attack in 1959, was an invaluable space for almost 47 years. It burned down on the morning of Sunday, March 13, in the fire that also consumed Holy Trinity and a neighboring home.

The church, finished in 1896, was going to turn 100 this year. This week, the church and the parish hall been remembered by those who used it or went there to attend events.

St. Ann's Catholic Church hosted a wake for McPhetres Hall from 1-3 p.m. Sunday, March 20. KTOO broadcast a one-hour tribute from 8-9 p.m. Monday, March 21.

Sitka resident Ann Parsons, a Holy Trinity parishioner since she moved to Juneau in 1946, attended Sunday's wake at St. Ann's. Parsons was confirmed, married and ordained at Holy Trinity. Her children were baptized there.

"When McPhetres Hall was built, my understanding was that it was mainly for recreation for the children and so forth," Parsons said. "They decided that basketball inside was not too good.

"It was intended for use by the community, and there were dinners there. For many years, they had a Christmas bazaar. It did fill a gap. There weren't too many places where people could gather like that."

Johanna McPhetres Smith, daughter of Sam McPhetres, was 7 or 8 years old when the hall was completed.

"There really weren't a lot of places for people to gather, and so this was the dream, to have a community center," McPhetres Smith said.

Her brothers were in high school, and the hall became a gathering place for dances. At one point, it had a jukebox filled with vinyl 45s.

A basketball hoop was set up in the hall parking lot and hosted countless pickup games at all hours of the day. There was a brief attempt to build a court inside the hall. A hoop was set up on the kitchen-end of the hall.

"All of us young guys thought that we should have a gym in our church, and our dad went along with it for a short while," Steven McPhetres wrote in an e-mail to his sister. "It took only one time to realize that it would be a better badminton court than a basketball court. The lights were not protected, and the floor was not good for bouncing balls. The ball flew in all directions, threatening the lights and kitchen."

The hall hosted some of the first welcoming sessions for Alaska state legislators. Those meetings were later moved to Centennial Hall.

related events

• at 5 p.m. saturday, april 1, the youth of holy trinity church will host "fools for christ," at st. ann's parish hall, at the cathedral of the nativity of the blessed virgin mary, 430 fifth st. the night will include face-painting, a costume contest, a dessert auction and and a pie-eating exhibition between the rev. george silides and the youth group. admission is $15 per person, or $25 per family.

• at 6 p.m. saturday, april 1, st. paul's catholic church, 9055 atlin drive, in the mendenhall valley, will host a spaghetti feed fundraiser for shelby edwards, the owner of the gold street home destroyed in the fire. the bands earthen vessel, one body and caribe workshop will play at 7:30 p.m.

• also on april 1, rainbow foods will donate 10 percent of all sales to theatre in the rough.

• donations for the church can be sent to holy trinity restoration fund, 411 gold st., juneau, ak 99801

• the church web site, http://www.trinityjuneau.org, will eventually accept credit-card donations.

• services have been moved to st. ann's parish hall, at the cathedral of the nativity of the blessed virgin mary, 430 fifth st.

• those who used the hall or attended events at the space are encouraged to send in their memories of holy trinity and mcphetres hall. church parishioners would ultimately like to gather the recollections in a book. you can send your memories to 411 gold st., juneau, ak 99801.

McPhetres was a convenient place to train domestic Peace Corps volunteers who were leaving for villages throughout Southeast Alaska. Maynard Miller and his Juneau Icefield Research team used to hold their annual orientation sessions at the hall.

An early ecumenical movement was launched in the church undercroft, Boesser said. Jack and Sally Lesh donated a pool table, and a group of Catholic boys would often head straight for the table as soon as the school day had concluded. Twenty minutes later, the kids from Capital School would arrive.

"It was like bees to honey," Boesser said. "They would have to be admitted or integrated into the game, and some developed considerable expertise at the game. One came back to say he had almost gone professional after that."

McPhetres and the undercroft hosted a vacation church school for years. One summer, a retired shop teacher volunteered his time, members of the community donated wood and a group of kids concocted elaborate constructions.

"Sometimes it sounded like a thunderstorm with the hammers and the saws carrying on," Boesser said.

In the 1960s, the church undercroft was a major player in Juneau's folk resurgence. It hosted weekly showcases for established singers and newcomers. Chuck and Mary Eddy eventually spun that coffeehouse into Gandalf's, an outreach ministry and coffeehouse in the Seward Street space now occupied by Olivia's.

The Alaska Homemaker Home Health Aid Service, a cooperative venture with the Juneau Methodist Church to help the aged, was headed out of an office below McPhetres Hall. Dove Kull and Diane Tickell were two of the program leaders.

The St. Paul Singers were one of the early vocal groups that began using McPhetres regularly. The group would hold one or two concerts a year at the high school. Since then, of course, the hall had hosted countless concerts for local and international perfomers of nearly every subgenre.

"It was a very live hall, almost too live," said Lena Simmons, a Juneay Lyric Opera member and a church parishioner since 1981. "There was a lot of sound bouncing off the walls, but it was bright and it had a lot of room and you could get a lot of people in there. It was convenient for people to rehearse t lunchtime, because it was an easy walk for most folks."

In the days before a consistent art theater, a number of film societies would project movies inside McPhetres Hall.

The space was a popular gathering spot for all sorts of dance, including the Alaska Folk Festival's famed Bread and Jam breakfast/lunch hoedown. Contact improvisation, an experimental dance form, appeared in the late 1970s. Participants would lean into and roll around each other, using the body as a point of contact.

Countless musical instruments were destroyed in the fire: an old upright grand piano in the hall; another upright in the choir room; a small donated pump organ in the undercroft; a piano and a Rogers organ in the church sanctuary; at least one autoharp; and a collection of hand drums, tambourines and triangles.

The Mustard Seed thrift store opened in the church in May 1984, after the Rev. Herb McMurthy suggested that all Episcopal churches have shops, according to Betty Heumann's article, "About The Mustard Seed," at www.juneau.com/holytrinity/stories.cfm.

Perseverance Theatre held its first production, "Pure Gold," at McPhetres in 1978. Soon after, the theater opened its present-day space in Douglas. "Pure Gold" moved to the new space for a summer run.

Juneau-Douglas Little Theatre began using McPhetres Hall in the 1980s when its old space, near the high school, was lost to remodeling.

Theatre in the Rough held "A Midsummer's Night Dream," its first production at McPhetres, in 1992. The company had held at least one or two plays in the space every year since. Opera to GO! had also used the venue in recent years.

"We were always welcome there, that was a big part of it," said Theatre in the Rough co-founder Aaron Elmore, a church parishioner. "Over the years, we were able to do more and more and make it our own. The location was fantastic, being totally connected with downtown. People who didn't live downtown never seemed to mund driving in, struggling to find a parking space.

"I liked the change-ability of the space," he said. "I loved the fact that not only were we able to do a show, but everytime we did a show it was something different. We were also able to know that once we were out of there, there'd be a concert in there or some sort of church event."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com

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