Story last updated at 9/25/2013 - 1:56 pm
I had been to Sitka half a dozen times in 20 years before I finally set aside an hour to take the tour of the Russian Bishop’s House. The whole experience was so interesting and memorable that it alone is worth a trip to Sitka if you are interested in the history of Alaska.
Just a block from the center of town, the house is unique in American history because it’s only one of four surviving examples of Russian colonial architecture in North America. The impressive yellow rectangular building with a red sloped roof was constructed by the Russian American Company in 1842. The house was the administrative heart of the Russian Orthodox Church for over 125 years, in a diocese that stretched from California to Siberia.
The first Bishop in live in the house was the remarkable Saint Innocent of Alaska, born Ivan Evsyevich Popov on Aug. 26, 1797. Ivan moved to Sitka in 1842 and remained until 1851 when he returned to Russia, where he eventually became the head of the entire Russian Orthodox Church.
Working all over Alaska and the Russian Far East, Innocent was known for his abilities as a scholar, linguist, and administrator. He wrote many of the earliest scholarly works about the Native peoples of Alaska, including dictionaries and grammars for their languages for which he devised writing systems.
The second man in residence was Father Iakov Netsvetov who died in Sitka in 1864. The Russian Orthodox Church continued to use the Bishop’s House as a school, residence and place of worship for another century until it was closed in 1969. By that time, the building was in a serious state of neglect, filled with rotten wood and tilting walls exacerbated by a badly leaking roof. The decay continued until 1973 when the National Park Service obtained the property and began a 16-year-long project to restore the building to its 1853 appearance.
Today some 200,000 people a year tour the house, led by the engaging Park Service staff who clearly love the history of the building and its inhabitants. While anyone can see the exterior of the house and the first floor exhibits for free, the guided tour is $4 and allows you to see the second story of the building where most of the cultural treasures are housed. Tours leave every 30 minutes and last about as long, though you are encouraged to ask questions and stay as long as you would like.
Once on the tour you learn that the house was constructed by Finnish Ship builders of square-hewn Sitka Spruce logs some 65 feet in length, joined together with mortise and tenon joints in the wall sections and scarph joints in the foundation, which get tighter over time.
The insulation found under the floors is a combination of sawdust, gravel and sand on a subfloor, which was elaborate for the mild Southeast Alaska climate but made for a very comfortable building. Adding to that comfort was a very effective heating system that made use of warmth accumulated in the kitchen for dispersal upstairs, and European-style room furnaces — not fireplaces — which kept heat stored in the brick around the fire-boxes to radiate heat during the day.
The first floor contains general information about the history of Sitka, the building and its occupants. Here was the kitchen, offices, living quarters for the students when this served as a seminary, and classrooms, both for seminarians and indigenous children.
Climbing the stairs to the second floor we find the bishop’s living quarters and private chapel. The wallpaper is a reproduction of the original design. In fact, 30 layers of wallpaper were removed in restoration upstairs, while numerous layers of paint had been applied to walls downstairs over the years.
Some of the furniture is original, including a chair crafted by St. Innocent to match other chairs already there. St. Innocent was a carpenter among his many other talents. A desk he built remains in his private office. It contains three secret compartments for the storage of important documents. Each compartment could be opened only by one who knew the location of the special, spring-loaded fixture which would trigger access. St. Innocent’s private library is located off his monastic bedchamber.
The Chapel of the Annunciation in the house served as St. Innocent's private chapel. Today, services are held here twice a week on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon. The historic icons and other church artifacts dating from the Gothic and Renaissance periods are absolutely stunning and have huge significance in the Russian Orthodox community because they are an intact collection from a time in Russian history that was all but destroyed by later political and social upheaval.
Our guide told a very touching story about the time Mrs. Boris Yeltsin, wife of the first President of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, visited and exclaimed over the church of her childhood appearing before her eyes, a sight she thought was lost forever. She asked for private time in the chapel where she held her own church service.
If you love history, you can touch the past at the Russian Bishops House. I marveled at the warmth of the building and the beauty of the furnishings from a time and place that would have had few creature comforts. It is easy to imagine yourself a guest of the house long, long ago and few leave the building without an appreciation of those who settled Alaska and those who stayed.
If you go:
106 Metlakatla St Sitka, AK 99835
The Russian Bishop's House is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., running tours of the second floor every 30 minutes.