Russian colonial house restored in Alaska. HISTORIC PRESERVATION
| Sitka, Alaska
AFTER intensive research, restoration of this continent's only intact, surviving example of Russian colonial architecture nears completion. But it was only recently that leading Soviet scholars of Russian architecture visited the Russian Bishop's House here. For 15 years, the Park Service had to work without the benefit of glasnost. All involved in the project (from upholsterers to the construction foreman) agreed that the actual work of restoring the simple spruce-paneled structure with a red iron roof - from preserving its settee fabric to replacing rotten floorboards - was no more difficult than that of a New England colonial home.
What made restoration of the 19th-century home especially challenging was the research.
``The most important documents were inaccessible in Soviet Union archives,'' says Ron Sheetz, furnishing conservator for the Park Service.
The service had already spent close to $5 million on the project when Alexei Schenkov, architect and historian from the All Union Science Research Institute of Moscow, and Nina Vernova, main curator of the Petrodyorec State Palace and Park Museum Preserve in Leningrad, came to appraise its accuracy.
After a lengthy inspection, the pair declared the restoration a success.
``We had the kind of questions that would require extensive research in the archives of Washington, D.C.,'' says Ernest Suazo, superintendent of Sitka National Historical Park. ``These people were able to answer right off the cuff.
``There was quite a bit of discussion on how a bed should be made,'' he adds. ``I personally had no idea that people of different countries make beds a little differently. Our discussions ranged from simple little things like that to very involved, technical discussions.''
Both the building and contents have been restored to a target period of 1842 to 1853, using, when possible, historically accurate techniques and materials.
All textiles were hand- and not machine-stitched. Glass from a California Victorian-era greenhouse was used to replace shattered panes.
The building, which includes meditation rooms and a chapel as well as living quarters, was constructed in 1842 by Finnish shipbuilders.
``It's fortunate the building has lasted as long as it has,'' says Mr. Suazo, noting the wood-rotting rain forest climate of southeast Alaska.
Sitka, known then as New Archangel, was the capital of Russian America, a colonial triangle of power that at one point extended from the Hawaiian Islands to northern California to Alaska.
The empire was ruled by the Russian-American Company, which built the Bishop's House and other buildings for Bishop Ivan Veniaminov.
For more than four decades, the rugged bishop traversed Siberia and Alaska by dog sled, kayak, and on foot, establishing rapport with the natives of the region.
After the United States bought Alaska in 1867, the Russians deserted the territory, leaving as a legacy only the structures and the converts of Veniaminov, who was later canonized as St. Innocent.
Now, both US and Soviet experts are showing increased interest in this underresearched historical episode the two countries share.
``Basically, our philosophy is the same in terms of restoration,'' comments Suazo, about Soviet and US efforts. But Soviet style of restoration is more labor-intensive, he says, citing the example of a layer of ledger papers, covered with fine Russian script, that had been carefully applied over the thick spruce panels throughout the home as insulation.
US workers photographed every scrap on the walls and then proceeded to cover the expanse with period wallpaper, re-created from shreds found when the home was pulled apart by carpenters.
One section was left unfinished, covered with Plexiglas so that visitors can examine the script.
Pieces of period furniture were shipped to the National Park Service Harpers Ferry Interpretive Design Center in West Virginia. Everything went - priceless icons, the bishop's hot water bottle, and a Tlingit Indian toy canoe paddle that had long ago fallen between the cracks of the floorboards.
Scott Taylor, a Sitka ranger, says, ``The house captures how life existed in Sitka at a certain time in the past and holds it for eternity.''