Kasaan strives to save historical Alaskan house

By Lyle Goulding
Kasaan, Alaska (AP) July 2010

One of Southeast Alaska’s historical treasures is falling, but a group of Haida Natives is rallying to save it.

The Chief Son-I-Hat Whale House in Kasaan is in desperate need of restoration.

The Organized Village of Kasaan has started the process of restoring the house, which was originally built in 1880. It is the only remaining Haida clan house in the United States.

“In the olden days it used to be said that you’d raise a totem pole or build a long house and you’d let them go back to the earth,” said Richard Peterson, OVS tribal president. “That was easy to say when you had a whole tribe of people who would carve a new one or build and new house, but now we don’t have that.”

The building is the center piece of a totem park, adjacent to a beach near Kasaan. It is on private property owned by Kavilco Inc., Kasaan’s village corporation.

The restoration project is in the early stages, after having an architecture and condition survey done on the building in 2007. Whether the project will be a restoration or a complete replacement will be decided later.

“We’d like to use as much as we could, I think, but those decisions haven’t been made, whether it’s a complete-with-all-new-wood rebuild or to use some of the existing wood,” said Frederick Otilius Olsen, cultural resources coordinator. “I think there’s a lot of sentiment to using as much of the present structure as possible, as more of a restoration than reconstruction.”

The survey conducted by MRV Architects based in Juneau concluded that the building was in serious need of immediate attention.

According to the report, “The building condition is somewhat deceptive. The setting and general visual condition of the facility is very beautiful and evocative, with positive first-impressions of the building, totem poles, and the grounds. ... However, once a more careful analysis is undertaken, it becomes clear that many of the critical structural components that appeared intact are, in fact, seriously rotted in areas that are not visible. This concealed structural rot is deemed significant enough that major structural collapse of building portions is possible at any time.”

Visible damage to the building includes a large opening in the front where floor planks have rotted, allowing the wall boards to collapse. Olsen said it looks like a window, but that isn’t intentional. Photos taken in 2006 show the wall intact.

The front door has fallen off the hinges and rests outside the building. The smoke hole at the peak of the roof shows obviously decay with a portion of the roof around it having collapsed.

People aren’t allowed inside the building.

The original Whale House fell into disrepair in the 1920s and collapsed. It was replaced as part of the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Olsen said the bulk of the work for the replacement was done in 1939 with the project being completed in 1940.

The MRV report stated that the 1939 project was a faithful restoration “that carefully replicated all portions of the older structure.”

“It’s completely post-and-beam, tongue-and-groove construction and one of the nicknames is ‘the house with no nails,”’ Olsen said. “There were no metal brackets or nails in the original or in the construction of the CCC reconstruction in the 30s.”

Three totem poles within the building are original from 1880. Chief Son-I-Hat brought them from Old Kasaan, about seven miles from Kasaan, to put in the clan house.

According to the architect’s report, they remain in fairly good condition, though there are signs of rot at the bottom.

It’s those types of historical items that current Kasaan residents want to hang on to.

“There’s a lot of history there that needs to be told,” Peterson said. “I hope to have kids one day and I don’t want to have to tell them there used to be this great house there that showed how our people lived for tens of thousands of years and we still had the last remaining one - and we let it go. I think to me that would be devastating.”

Peterson said an agreement is in place, giving the Village of Kasaan authority to raise money toward restoration of the building.

Cost of the project was estimated in 2007 at $2.25 million. The estimate of cedar to replace the wood was set at $250,000.

“Yellow cedar structural members of this scale can not be purchased conventionally, and will require special harvesting specific to this project, probably from Prince of Wales Island. As such, it is difficult to predict construction prices to obtain the significant wood quantities required. Obtaining appropriate old-growth yellow cedar materials will likely require negotiation between Kavilco and the United States Forest Service, at a minimum,” the MRV report reads.

Peterson and Olsen said fundraising is under way, including raffles and T-shirt sales.

“In reality that’s just bringing awareness,” Peterson said. “We’ve got to raise $2 million. We’re not going to do that through raffles.”

The Organized Village of Kasaan is seeking grant funding through state, federal and private organizations. The architecture report was paid for by a grant from the National Park Service.

Peterson said various groups of people visit each year. School groups often tour the grounds during the spring and tour boats stop to see the Whale House and totem park in the summer.

“I had no idea how special the Whale House was to anybody else,” Peterson said. “I knew the significance it holds for me, growing up in Kasaan and realizing the cultural significance of the building. To be honest I didn’t know that anybody in Thorne Bay or Naukati or Craig would give a hoot really. To find out that they all feel it’s an amazing place, people feel connected to it and have been coming back for years.”

Many in Kasaan have similar feelings about the building’s significance.

“It’s neat for myself personally, knowing that my great-grandfather and his brother were a couple of the carvers who worked on the building,” Olsen said. “There’s other people who have ancestors who worked on the building and people who worked on the restoration, so it’s a special building to all of us here.”

One of his duties with the OVS is documenting the Whale House and bringing awareness to people. He has produced documentaries in the past and is working to shoot video footage and still shots at the site throughout the process.