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A Brief History of Alaskan Architecture

December 22, 2022



Alaska architecture reflects the diverse ethnic groups that inhabited the region, as well as the climate. Its simplicity is a result of a lack of architectural ornament, and the buildings are oriented for practical purposes. However, the last century's development has brought a broader scope to Alaska's architecture. Using materials such as wood, concrete, and steel, architects and contractors have responded to cultural and economic imperatives.



In the early nineteenth century, Russians established a permanent settlement on Kodiak Island. The buildings were made of strong wooden palisades and thick logs. They were arranged in an informal fashion and were described as "after the Russian style."



Another settlement was the Three Saints Bay settlement. This settlement included five buildings that were laid out in different apartments. They were described as "after the Russian fashion." Their buildings consisted of barabaras, or mounded logs, that were three bays wide and one story tall.

A more elaborate building was the Sitka log customhouse, which was built in 1857. It was the most elaborate of all the Russian buildings in the colony. Built with round arch windows, the log house was decorated with elaborate architectural details.

Eskimos lived in the northern and western coasts of Alaska. These people built large skin-covered and plank-walled dwellings. These structures had a tunnel entrance and storage alcoves in the roof. At the southern coast, they built elevated wooden structures, known as caches.

There were several groups of Native Americans who occupied Alaska before the arrival of the Russians. Aleuts, Tlingit, and Athapaskan Indians each had distinctive architecture. These cultures responded to different needs and influenced one another.

During the nineteenth century, Alaska's architecture was influenced by the arrival of Americans. They brought with them an idea of the frontier, and built houses that were familiar to them back home. By the twentieth century, Alaskan architecture was more uniform. New-style dwellings, which were often gable-roofed rectangular buildings, were more commonly seen.

While the construction of Alaskan buildings is characterized by their simplicity, they are still distinctive. The buildings reflect a number of factors, including the need to make use of available resources, the convenience of prefabricated building, and the need to respond to cultural and economic imperatives. Many of these buildings were constructed with the expediency of their time in mind. For example, the church at Saint Paul in the Pribilof Islands was built in 1821.

When the Sitka Company began to lose money, it retrenched. Several of its buildings were demolished, but the Company's Building No. 29 survived. This structure was two stories tall, and was constructed in early 1850s.

The bishop's house was a wooden structure that was built in the mid-nineteenth century. Bishop Innocent's chapel was located on the second floor. Besides the chapel, the house also contained the Bishop's office and a library. Despite its simple appearance, it had a dramatic metal-clad roof and carpeted interior.

Another type of Alaskan architecture is the igloo. This unique structure was strongly associated with the Eskimo. However, there are no actual igloos in Alaska.


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