Survey may help preserve Wickersham

Posted: Monday, August 20, 2001

Plaster and lath are separating on the second floor of Juneau's Wickersham House, but a nearly completed survey may open new doors to funding for the historic, 101-year-old residence.

"There are lots of places that look like they need attention," said local attorney Tom Wagner, president of the nonprofit Wickersham Society Inc. Wagner has noticed cracking paint as well as plaster separation.

"The survey will document what needs restoration. Once we have a ballpark estimate, then we can approach funding agencies," he said.

Known as both the Hammond/Wickersham House and the House of Wickersham Historic Site, the stately Victorian residence was built in 1899 on part of an old placer mining claim by Frank Hammond, owner of Sheep Creek Mining Company.

Judge James Wickersham previously had been assigned to courts in Eagle and Fairbanks, but traveled as far afield as Nome. In his later years, the famous territorial judge and author practiced law in Juneau. He purchased the house in the 1920s and lived there with his second wife from 1928 until his death in 1939.

"The house is a centerpiece for Juneau's historic district, and I am surprised that more attention has not been paid to its rehabilitation," said Sheri Hazeltine, a member of the Wickersham Society's board. "Right now the public can't even visit the second floor. It's a shame that it is falling into disrepair."

"We were eager to have this report done and requested it in writing almost a year ago," said Alice Rarig, who serves on the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation Advisory Board for the Juneau area. "It will make it possible to apply for funds to do necessary repairs and possible to get it at least partially restored."

The survey, called a historic structure report, is being conducted by James Malanaphy, an architectural historian with the state office of History and Archaeology in Anchorage.

His report does not necessarily become a sheaf of pages, Malanaphy said, but is an on-going planning project.

In addition to examining the 1899 building and doing an inventory of its doors, windows and contents, Malanaphy has looked closely at paint finishes and wallpapers. He has interviewed advisory group members and maintenance staff to gather their opinions. And he has talked to the city's engineering and community development departments about their wishes for the house.

"We talked about recommended uses for the building and what it could do for the community. We also talked about what period the building should be interpreted in," he said.

His goal is to come up with a short-term action plan "for things that can be done right away." The short-term plan aims to identify low-cost and no-cost actions as well as things that would require capital improvement grants.

A second, long-range plan will "stabilize what we can see right now" and will consider "how to make it whole," rather than a hodge-podge of finishes, styles, wall coverings and furnishings from a variety of eras.

The house was not always in its present size and shape. "There has obviously been some surgery over the years," Malanaphy said.

For example, the original entry was on the south side, facing downtown. Judge Wickersham had the porch extended into an L shape and enclosed, Malanaphy said. The Seventh Avenue entrance on the north was added later.

Using flaming sourdough waffles as her drawing card, Wickersham's niece, Ruth Allman, made a success of house tours in the 1970s and '80s.

The state assumed ownership in 1984. Since then, notions about how to use the house range from the lieutenant governor's residence to renting the third floor as a law office, Rarig said.

"The report is the first step in establishing the period of significance for the building and getting community input," said Bill Garry, area superintendent for Alaska State Parks. "The house is not falling down by any means, but the inside has not been restored. Even if we decide what period to restore it to, money isn't just dripping off the trees for this sort of thing."

Wagner hopes the survey will give nonprofits greater leverage for grants. "I would like to see a display created that focuses on Alaska's legal history and important issues. But the house is the first priority."

The house is open to the public from May through September daily from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m., except Wednesdays.

"If visitors have time, we always have tea and sourdough cookies," said caretaker Elva Bontrager. In the winter, the first floor can be rented for potlucks, weddings and meetings, she said. Call 586-900l for details.

Dues to join the Wickersham Society are $15 per year. They can be mailed to the society at 213 Seventh Street, Juneau, 99801.

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