Stevenson Hall
The Sitka Summer Music Festival first started using Stevenson Hall in 1972. The Festival finally purchased the building in 2015. (KCAW/Nina Sparling)

A version of this story that previously aired mistakenly referred to plat notes as non-binding.  The error has been corrected.

The Sitka Summer Music Festival is making a year-round home for itself in Stevenson Hall on the Sheldon Jackson Campus. A $4.2 million rehabilitation project will transform the building into a space where musicians and students can live, work, and rehearse year-round. But one piece of the plan has sparked debate: old windows. 

“It’s an old building,” said board president Don Lehman. “The insulation is bad, the wiring is bad, the plumbing is bad. It’s our goal to refurbish this and turn it into a 12-month building that will allow us to provide more music to Sitka and to the State of Alaska.” 

The single-paned, wood framed original windows in the Sitka Music Festival’s long-time home make it hard to create temperature-stable rooms with good acoustics. The Festival wants to replace the original windows with new ones.

But historic preservation experts say that replacing the old windows with modern ones endangers the historic integrity of the building — and the Sheldon Jackson Campus’ designation as a National Historic Landmark. 

There would be nothing historic left,” said Rebecca Poulson, a local artist and preservation advocate. “If you go up to that building you could be in New Jersey, California…Anchorage, god forbid.” 

Poulson and others say that replacing the windows threatens to distance the building from this history as one of the state’s earliest educational institutions for Alaska Natives. Complex and painful as it may be, maintaining that material connection to the past matters. 

“Most people have had that sense when you go into a house that has had people living in it and people who made it and have cared for it, all that is just somehow present in that building,” Poulson said. “It would be really too bad to make a new building when it means throwing away the old.”

A New York-based architectural firm designed the campus between 1910 and 1911. The architects, Charles Peabody and William Orr Ludlow designed buildings across the country. Ludlow was an active member of the Presbyterian Church and the college was initially a missionary reform school intended to re-educate Alaska Native students. Instruction all happened in English and emphasized American values like single family homes and job training for the industrial workforce. Graduates of the college went on to form the Alaska Native Brotherhood, an organization that continues to advocate for civil rights nationwide. Complexity is nothing new to the Sheldon Jackson campus.

The college first used Stevenson Hall as a dormitory for young girls. The building has seen many uses since.

That’s part of why the campus was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2001. Unlike many historic sites in Alaska, the Sheldon Jackson campus retains a high degree of its historic architectural integrity. “It’s very rare that the buildings in Alaska of that age are in this kind of good condition,” said state historic preservation officer Judith Bittner. “The campus is the best example of an institution for Native education in Alaska.” 

The Sheldon Jackson College trustees took that into consideration when they put the property up for sale. They chose to include a plat note that any major modifications to the building would be consistent with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring, and Reconstructing Historic Buildings. 

That plat note is binding for the Festival, but the Secretary of the Interior’s standards serve only as guidelines if no federal grant money is involved. And in 2014, the Festival did receive a federal grant from the Historic Preservation Fund. That came with a five-year covenant that requires the Festival follow those guidelines from the Secretary of the Interior. The covenant also requires State Historic Preservation Office approve the Festival’s building plans, which is where the window problem surfaces again.

An architect’s rendering of the plans for Stevenson Hall (Photo/Sitka Summer Music Festival)

Bittner, the state historic preservation officer, has yet to approve the plan to replace the windows. Her office doesn’t think the proposed replacement windows meet the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines for rehabilitation. “When you replace the windows or you change out the windows you’re really changing the look of a building,” Bittner said.

But the five-year covenant expires in October of this year. After the covenant expires, the Festival doesn’t need approval from the state for its project plans.

Even with an expired covenant, the plat notes on the property still exist. The City of Sitka has never found itself in a position where plat notes about historic preservation have been an issue, so they haven’t previously been enforced. 

“The plat notes simply state that any activities or building alterations would consider the Secretary of Interior’s standards for fixing buildings, rehabilitating buildings [sic],” said Anne Pollnow, vice-chair of the Sitka Historic Preservation Commission and president of the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation.

The windows at Stevenson Hall.

“Since our community doesn’t have zoning and ordinances associated with historic preservation, they’re not enforceable,” Pollnow said. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a binding agreement, though.

When the Festival bought Stevenson Hall, it signed on to follow the plat notes as the new owners. But they did so with the understanding that the notes refer to guidelines, not obligations. “It’s a bit of a messy grey-area, frankly,” said Festival executive director Kayla Boettcher.

The Festival wants to replace the windows for a few reasons. Musicians traveling with expensive instruments need a reliable climate to store them. They also want to be able to rehearse in rooms that meet industry standards for acoustics. The Festival building committee decided Andersen A-Series wood-clad fiberglass replacements meet those needs best. 

The renovation plans involve adding new layers of insulation to the walls and new construction windows fit better with those plans, says project manager Paul Cotter. “A more modern window makes that entire assembly a little more homogeneous,” he said. “It’s a better overall fit, it works as a system.”

Rebecca Poulson, however, contests that view. Restoring the original wood-framed, single-pane windows and adding interior storm windows would provide the same benefit, and serve as a model for how to do historic preservation, she says.

“You can have a completely modern building in function that retains all of its historic character. It’s not hard to do, you just have to plan for it,” Poulson said. “It takes a little bit of research and imagination to say that actually you can have this authentic, beautiful, restored window with just a storm window.”

Research and resources from historic preservation organizations and experts point to potential cost and energy savings from that strategy. A 2016 report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation found that “existing window retrofit strategies come very close to the energy performance of high-performance replacement windows at a fraction of the cost.” 

Despite that research, and the determinations from the State Historic Preservation Office about how replacement would fundamentally alter the building, the Festival plans to stick to new windows. Restoration versus replacement aside, the conversation about Stevenson Hall underscores how much Sitkans care about two things: their history, and building for the future.