Documenting an Endangered Sacred Site in Alaska


Photo credit: Tom Pillifant of Tommy’s Dog Cinematography

In 2020-21, RIM assisted with Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) documentation to help protect an endangered historic church on Kodiak Island in Alaska. Constructed in 1888, the Ascension of Our Lord Russian Orthodox Church is the oldest extant Russian Orthodox church in Alaska and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Karluk Church, which is attributed to Charles Smith Hursh, is beautifully designed with a prominent bell tower, pedimented Greek Revival doorway, and octagonal cupola. Originally built by a cannery for its Alaska Native workers, the wood-framed chapel sits on a high bluff, located above the Karluk River overlooking Shelikof Straight, on the west coast of Kodiak Island. The church was placed on the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation’s “Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties” in both 2020 and 2021.

Photo Credit: National Park Service, September 1, 2015

The Devastating 1978 Storm

In 1978, a storm surge altered the course of the Karluk River, forcing the village to move inland about three-quarters of a mile. Since then, the bluff the chapel sits on has severely eroded and is now about 10 feet from the edge. A variety of stakeholders are working to temporarily relocate the building away from the bluff as it continues to erode.


Documenting the Church

In 2019, RIM was contracted by the National Park Service (NPS) to prepare HABS drawings of the church. In September 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, careful arrangements were made through collaborative discussions with the Village of Karluk and the NPS to ensure RIM’s consultant, Chrystal Prism Consulting, could safely conduct a site visit to develop 3D imaging of the interior and exterior of the building, using high definition laser scanning.  Chrystal Prism landed early in the morning, and completed their scanning effort in one day, resulting in minimal exposure to village residents.

The resulting cloud of scan points at a density of 1/8” is a 3-dimensional as-built of the building, which allowed RIM to generate documentation drawings using Revit CAD software. Utilizing RIM’s staff in the Anchorage, Honolulu, and San Francisco offices, the HABS drawings were generated. The HABS program is administered by the NPS, and the final drawings will be deposited in the Library of Congress. The goal is to temporarily relocate the church away from the bluff and use the HABS drawings to further stabilize and restore the church at a site further inland.

For more information on this historic preservation project, contact Bryce Klug: bklug@rimarchitects.com or visit https://rossialaska.org/project-ascension-of-our-lord-chapel/ to donate.

Above: Enlargement of HABS drawing by RIM
Exterior scan image: Chrystal Prism Consulting