A lift for a famous façade

Skagway hall's driftwood front faces a restoration

Posted: Monday, November 22, 2004

You might say Skagway's Arctic Brotherhood Hall has been in a sticky situation as of late - but that's about to change.

The structure's famous driftwood-decked façade - often called the most photographed building in Alaska, but deteriorating from more than a century of wind and water - is undergoing a complete restoration this winter. Every one of the more than 8,000 pieces of driftwood will be removed, repaired or replaced, and then returned to its original spot.

A state grant and city funds are being used to pay for the work, which has been discussed for years. Pieces of the faade occasionally fall to the wood-plank sidewalk below.

"The A.B. Hall was really in need of preservation work," said Mike Catsi, a Skagway City Council member and executive director of the Skagway Development Corporation who helped secured grant funding. "This is such an important building in Skagway. It's nice to see it get the treatment it deserves.

"I'd like to see it last another 100 years."

The building - long ago vacated by the now-defunct fraternal organization that built it in 1899 - is owned by the city and houses the offices of the Skagway Convention & Visitors Bureau. Its large hall still hosts a variety of local functions.

"It's a great tie to the past, to historic Skagway," said Karl Gurcke, a historian with the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. "It also serves a modern-day function as a visitors' center and a place where we have community events. In many ways, it serves the same purpose as in gold rush days."

The driftwood was added to the building in 1900 by club member Charles Walker. The exact number of sticks used was long placed as high as 20,000. But two years ago Skagway CVB staff spent their lunch breaks counting the sticks and arrived at a total of 8,833.

In addition to a basket weave pattern covering much of the front, the faade includes driftwood lettering and a replica of the Brotherhood's gold pan button.

Previous efforts to preserve the A.B. Hall's façade consisted mainly of sprayed-on oils and treatments. This winter's work, started a few weeks ago by Jeff Mull and Jeff Litter of Skagway's Jewell Construction, is far more in-depth.

Working under scaffolding and plastic sheeting that will veil the building until work is completed, Mull and Litter are using a digital camera to document each section of driftwood before they start to remove the pieces.

Each piece is pried from the building just enough to provide room for a hacksaw to cut through the nails. Once the driftwood is freed from the faade, an identification number is taped to each piece and they are boxed by section and stored in the building.

Pieces still in good shape will be treated with preservatives and anti-fungal agents. The exact process is still being tested, and Mull said the testing will help formulate a maintenance schedule for the future.

Driftwood that is beyond repair will be replaced with pieces that Skagway city employees have been gathering from local beaches.

As the driftwood is removed, Mull and Litter are assessing and repairing the structure underneath. Catsi said the work may also involve restoring decorative pieces visible in old photographs but now missing, like upturned stumps crowning the upper corners of the faade and additional trimwork.

The project is expected to last until May and is funded in part from a $25,000 grant from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources' Office of History and Archaeology. The City of Skagway is contributing at least $70,000 for the project.

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