$1M Shakes House took year to rebuild


It took more than a year to complete, but the Chief Shakes Tribal House came together late last week as project manager Todd White and his crew installed the newly carved Bear screen and put finishing touches on the interior of the structure.

The house cost nearly $1 million to rebuild and saw a crew of adzers spend the majority of last summer carving away at monolithic planks of nearly foot-thick cedar that would go into the new construction.

A part of that million-dollar price tag was a $222,000 award from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust in 2012. The grant was made a part of the project’s endowment after the Wrangell Cooperative Association submitted and revised their request multiple times beginning in 2009. WCA received notice in May that the grant had been approved.

Other sources of funding for the construction came from the Rasmuson Foundation and other, private donors.

White, who came on as the project’s superintendent in 2012, said the effort to renovate the house was going poorly when he arrived, though he quickly worked to get the most important part of the house done.

“The project was faltering a lot, it was pretty much floundering when I came onboard,” White said. “We picked it up and cleaned it up and started to build it. We had a set of drawings that were not very helpful and the biggest problem when I arrived was the beams of the house. Nobody was able to get wood for those.”

After meeting with representatives from Sealaska, White got his wood – and the rebuild commenced.

“We got some very nice logs to make those big, beautiful beams out of,” White added. “It really made the project go forward. The way we approached it at that point is that we took the house apart and put it back together exactly the same way, just with new wood. Though, anytime anything was in good condition from the old house, we used it. If we could use something, we replicated it as close as we could to make it exactly like it was.”

The new Bear screen, which adorns the front of the House, was recreated by a group of local and far-flung carvers. Its new design is one that White says will increase the longevity of the cedar and helps eliminate pests from the building.

“The screen out front of the house now is a replication of the original one that was put up on the original version of the Shakes House,” White said. “The most recent screen was an interpretation of the original. What we did was do the original design. Plus, the old screen was a false front, so there was only a three-inch gap. No birds could get in and get at the bugs, it was wet and dark, and it was basically everything you needed to make an ant farm. The house, as it stood before, was not long for this world. It was pretty much ready to fall over.”

The adzing team that worked on the house included Linda Churchill, Suzie Kasinger, Tammi Meissner, Justin Smith, Steve Brown, Wayne Price, Vanessa Pazaar and Josh Lesage, while the construction team led by White included Richard Oliver, Jim Holder, Tyver Gillen and Joel Churchill.

Gillen, who has been on the construction team since the beginning of the project, said the work he did was unlike any other he had ever experienced.

“It was awesome to work on the house, even though it was tough at times,” Gillen said. “Having machinery made it a lot easier, though. It was nothing like building a regular house where you have maybe a five-gallon bucket full of nails. It was hard labor at times with all the concrete, but it was worth it. It was awesome to see how the ancestors built these homes. I am glad I was a part of it.”

Sealaska Corporation donated the cedar used in the new house and a portion of the 12 logs used in the project was taken from native lands near the Cleveland Peninsula on Prince of Wales Island.


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