Douglas school regains its cupola

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2003

A former Tlingit school in Douglas has a cupola once again, thanks to the city and construction students, many of whom are Native, at the University of Alaska Southeast.

On Nov. 8, Silverbow Construction attached the top of the cupola, or bell tower, to its base on the roof of the city-owned Mayflower School building, now leased to a Montessori school. The base was put in place three weeks before.

The Mayflower School, built in 1933-34 by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs as a model school for Natives and a community center, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the only building in Douglas on the registry, the city said.

The federal government turned over the building to the city of Douglas, which was then a separate entity from the city of Juneau, in 1963 or 1964, Juneau officials said.

In 1962, the city of Douglas, with the help of the BIA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, destroyed a traditional Native fishing village on what is now Savikko Park, near the school. The Douglas Indian Association is still seeking a redress of its grievance about the village's destruction.

The cupola, which once contained a bell, rang the students to class and helped ventilate the attic. Art Morris of the city Engineering Department said he wasn't sure when or why it was taken down.

The new cupola is about 5-feet-square at the base and 14 feet tall. It doesn't hold a bell and it doesn't provide ventilation anymore, said Marquam George, assistant professor of construction technology at UAS.

The city spent about $5,000 on the project, including the cupola's installation, Morris said.

"The amount of money being spent on this restoration is really justified by the historical aspect of the building," Morris said. "It has a lot of interest in the Douglas community and the Indian community."

John Bowman, then an assistant professor of construction technology at UAS, found old photos and some information about the school in national archives kept in Anchorage in 1999, when the city renovated the building and came up with the idea of recreating the cupola.

Bowman, who is now the city's chief regulatory engineer, made a drawing based on the photos and scaled it from known points on the building to get the exact dimensions.

About 10 of Bowman's beginning construction students, many of whom are Natives, started to build the cupola in 1999, he said. The class was sponsored by the Tlingit-Haida Central Council as a way of getting people into the trade.

"The university had done quite a few little building projects for the city, and that seemed like a natural," Bowman said.

But the cupola was a complex project, not well suited to students learning conventional construction, and they didn't complete it.

This year, five of George's students in a three-month construction training program for at-risk youths completed the cupola as part of their work, he said. The students are Gary Johnson and Vanessa Pazar of Sitka, Bob Boorman and Dave Weston of Juneau and Larry Mardsen of Craig.

The training program, sponsored by the Southeast Alaska Guidance Association, was funded by an $85,000 state work force investment grant to the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority.

The cupola had to be built to withstand high winds and was built in pieces to be reassembled on the roof, George said.

"It's not often a carpenter builds a cupola anymore," he said. "Even if you had many years in the trade, there'd be some head-scratching that goes along with it."

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