Aaron Issaacs attended Mount Edgecumbe Boarding School from 1955 to 1957. Although Alaska Native boarding schools have a complicated and often dark history in the state, Issaacs looks back fondly on his time at Mount Edgecumbe. (KCAW Photo/Snider)

In Sitka, there’s a unique piece of local architectural history hiding in plain sight. Several pieces, actually. At least four houses built by Mount Edgecumbe Boarding School students in the 1950s are still standing. But the exact number — and their significance to the people who built them — have remained largely unknown. Now, an anthropologist is working to change that.

Candace Rutledge has been house hunting around Sitka recently. But she’s not looking to buy. Rutledge, an anthropologist who is working under the direction of Anne Pollnow, owner of Sea Level Consulting, is tracking down houses built by Mount Edgecumbe Boarding School students in the 1950s. 

At the heart of her research is a group of four houses on Tongass Drive, across from the SEARHC hospital on Japonski Island.

Students in the vocational carpentry program built these houses as single-family homes, mainly for hospital staff. Today, they are owned by the Indian Health Service but contain SEARHC offices.

Evolution of the 1953/1954 construction project. The houses were built in a hangar, then rolled out to the foundation. (Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mount Edgecumbe Boarding School 1954, 57).

But IHS is transferring them to SEARHC, meaning the buildings will lose historic preservation protections that come with federal ownership. That’s where Rutledge and Sea Level Consulting come in — to document and preserve their history. Anne Pollnow, owner of Sea Level, will compile the findings in a booklet that will be published by the Indian Health Service. Martello Design Co. will format the booklet, and it will be free to the public.

“I would say this is cultural anthropology,” Rutledge said. “And we are just collecting history that is still amongst us.”  

The single-story wooden houses were built in what’s known as the Minimal Traditional style. Think small, functional, nothing too fancy. To the untrained eye, they might not look like anything special. 

But for people like Aaron Issaacs, who helped construct these houses when he was a student, they are very, very special. 

“It’s my pride and joy,” he said. “And I worked on a lot of projects.”

Issaacs is from Klawock, on Prince of Wales Island. After the local high school burned down in 1954, he moved to Sitka to attend Mount Edgecumbe. He joined the carpentry program, learned to build houses, and never really looked back. He went on to become a carpenter and a builder, and taught his children so they could follow him into the trade. 

He still lives in Klawock, and flew to Sitka recently to speak about the vocational carpentry program at an event organized by Rutledge. 

One of the four houses on Tongass Drive. Some parts have been replaced or renovated, but much of the original material remains. (KCAW Photo/Snider)

Issaacs marvels at what they were able to accomplish. 

“We were just kids and we’re building houses!” Issaacs said. “Just juniors and seniors in high school, and we’re building houses.” 

Standing outside the houses on a chilly evening as rain starts to fall, Issaacs reels off one story after another, preserved in sharp detail even 60 years later. Like the time he was working on the roof on a frosty morning and his friend started slipping off.  

“He went sliding off the roof and I couldn’t grab him! He slid right off — Hey! Landed on his feet! He’s standing there looking at me and we started laughing,” Issaacs remembers.   

The house known as PHS-4 being rolled onto its concrete foundation on Tongass Drive. (Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mount Edgecumbe Boarding School 1958, 65).

And when their instructor, the famously detail-oriented George Nelson, backed his truck right into the side of one of the houses. 

“William Joseph and I were standing by the door and we saw it coming and we ran over out of the way and he backed right into the house,” Issaacs said. “Oh! So we had to tear that whole corner — that section out and rebuild it. He apologizes about a thousand times I’ll betcha.”  

For Issaacs, it’s hard to overstate the importance of these buildings. In addition to setting him up for a lifelong career as a builder, they represent a crucial point in his life. Growing up in Klawock, Issaacs says his family lived in poverty and his parents struggled with alcoholism. So getting to Mount Edgecumbe was a huge change. 

“I had my own bed. Clean linen, towels once a week,” Issaacs said. “Toilet right down the hall, shower right down the hall. Dining hall right down — within walking distance. And all we had to do was learn! Man, what more can we want?”   

Based on interviews with Isaacs and around 20 other alumni, Rutledge has been canvassing Sitka in search of Mount Edgecumbe houses that have slipped through the archives. Today, she’s following up on a tip that takes us out Sawmill Creek Road, to a house on a beach overlooking Thimbleberry Bay. 

“The original ground floor would be 26 by 45 feet, and they’ve added a second story and an addition to the side as well,” Rutledge said. “If this is indeed from Japonski Island. It’s hard to tell with all the alterations.” 

Chalk this one up as a definite maybe. 

Regardless of the exact findings, Issaacs says he’s happy that people are taking an interest in these houses. Even though he went on to build much larger and more complicated structures, for him, one of the little houses on Tongass Drive still occupies a class of its own — it’s the first house he ever built. 

“I built freeways, tunnels,” Issaacs said. “Those are just buildings. But I often thought about this building, this particular building, there’s almost no other way I could describe it: My pride and joy, was building this house.” 

For a carpenter and a builder, he says, there’s no project that can really compete with that first house.