The Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Old Town Kenai is getting a new hat for its 125th birthday.
The church, which was built from 1895 to 1896, will get a new roof, new cupolas and new crosses. Construction began Monday and is expected to last about two months.
Dorothy Gray is a lifetime member of the Russian Orthodox Church. She became a church member in Kenai when she moved here 42 years ago. Gray also is the treasurer of Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of Alaska’s Russian Orthodox Churches and iconography.
Gray said ROSSIA, along with other individuals, tourists and organizations, is providing $170,000 for the project. Gray is the project manager because ROSSIA always likes a local representative to take that title.
Pandemic gives, takes away
Like seemingly everything these days, the church is feeling the effects of the new coronavirus pandemic. Some of those effects have been good, some have been bad.
On the good side, Gray said the improvement project would not be happening at the church this summer had it not been for the pandemic.
“Just this spring, COVID changed a lot of the building plans for ROSSIA,” Gray said.
Many of the projects required travel to remote villages, which is very tough during the pandemic.
Not only is Kenai on the road system, but it’s also a short drive from Blazy Construction in Soldotna. Gray said that because the church is a National Historic Landmark, Department of the Interior standards must be met on the improvement project.
Blazy Construction can meet those standards, meaning the project can be pulled off with minimal travel.
COVID hasn’t been totally good to the church, though.
“We were planning a big anniversary celebration, but because of COVID-19, it’s been scaled down radically,” Gray said.
She said there will be a much smaller celebration in September or October. During that time of year, an exhibit on the church also will go up at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
History meets present
To say the church itself is a National Historic Landmark is correct, but also can be confusing. Gray said the church, Saint Nicholas Memorial Chapel, the rectory, the cemetery and Fort Kenay are all part of the National Historic Landmark designation.
Grant Crosby, a National Park Service historical architect providing technical assistance on the improvement project, said National Historic Landmark is the highest honor this country bestows on historic sites.
Crosby said there are about 88,000 on the National Register of Historic Places, but just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks in the country. He added there are just 50 National Historic Landmarks in Alaska.
“It has to contribute to the United States as a whole,” Crosby said.
According to the form that nominated all the Russian Orthodox buildings in Kenai for the National Register, the area is the principal representative of Russian culture in Southcentral Alaska from 1841 to present.
The nomination form continues: “For the Kenaitze Indians, who are still a significant portion of the population, it was the major institution for the assimilation of western custom. In particular, it served as an educational, religious, administrative, and judicial center until well into the twentieth century. It also provided the region’s first access to public health.”
The church continues to play a key role in Kenai today.
“The church plays an important part in tourism in the city in addition to being a place of worship,” Gray said. “There’s easily 200 people through the church every day during a normal year in the summer.”
With the pandemic, this hasn’t been a normal year. Again, that has pluses and minuses.
On the plus side, the church won’t be turning away as many tourists during the weekdays, when it is closed for construction. On the minus side, losing the tourists has cost the church revenue.
“We’re still trying to garner funds for one part of the roofing project and we don’t have the money to do it,” Gray said. “Not having tourists has been a detriment.”
Before Blazy started work Monday, BrandSafway Scaffolding Systems spent about 10 days putting up scaffolding.
Father Peter Tobias of the church did a blessing for the improvement project Monday. A time capsule also was found inside a dome over the altar area. Three or four plastic bags contained a 1978 silver dollar, photographs showing construction of the church’s cupolas and 1994 articles from The Tides and Peninsula Clarion.
The purpose of the project is to improve the exterior appearance of the church and stop leaking into the interior of the church. Gray said it will be nice to retire the buckets and containers in the church arrayed to collect drips.
Crosby was involved in a 2010 project to replace and repair rotten logs that are behind the horizontal siding in the church. The project also installed a fire suppression system and accessibility ramp.
“The stabilization was so needed at the time, we needed to do it right then,” Crosby said. “The roof project was not far behind and very much needed.”
While Crosby spearheaded the 2010 project, John Wachtel, also a National Park Service historical architect, is spearheading the current project. Wachtel is able to provide technical assistance because he’s a member of the Heritage Assistance Program, which has the main objective of assisting people outside of the National Park Service.
“Now we’re putting a new hat on the building to protect the work that we’ve done,” Wachtel said.
Crosby and Wachtel said both the structure and roof were not done in 2010 because the funding was not available to do both projects at once.
Shingles, cupolas, crosses
That new hat involves shingles, cupolas and crosses.
Wachtel is not sure the last time shingles were put on the roof, but he said it looks like the shingles were simply put over an old layer of shingles.
“We’re hoping to remove them, then put down some materials that will help ensure that leakage doesn’t occur,” Wachtel said.
Crosby said a lot of study has gone into the layout of the shingles.
“We don’t want to alter the appearance, as much as possible,” he said. “We may be improving the assembly with things that are hidden, but we’re trying to keep the exterior appearance very much the way it is now.”
There are three cupolas on the church. Each are supposed to have a cross on top, but the central one has been missing a cross for several years.
Wachtel said a lot of the leakage also appears to be coming from the central cupola. Crosby added that the cupolas have a lot of joints and connections that can fail and let water in.
“You guys in Kenai have a lot of wind-driven rain coming right off the coast here, so that’s a persistent leak,” Crosby said. “Part of the project is to restore those cupolas and make them more waterproof.”
The third part of the project is to replace the three Russian Orthodox crosses on top of the cupolas. The crosses are currently made of wood. The new ones will be made of stainless steel, powder-coated to match the current gold of the crosses. The steel manufacturers got the exact dimensions from a 3D laser scan.
“The crosses should be identical in size and in everything but material and weight,” Wachtel said. “They should be able to withstand ravens and eagles landing on them constantly.”
Crosby said the shift to metal crosses is coming because wood crosses only last 10 to 15 years, while metal crosses last for 50 years or more. On the other hand, the architects are sticking with a wood roof instead of a metal roof because of appearance. The new shingles should last 40 years.
“It’s a delicate balance,” Crosby said. “They don’t have the ability to maintain these sites frequently, so this will buy it more time. From here, (the crosses) will look the same, but it’s more weatherproof.”
Crosby and Wachtel also will hope for an autumn that is less rainy than typical.