You could miss the red log church among the spruces and the lilacs next door to the Downtown Soup Kitchen. It isn’t much bigger than a shed with weathered shingles, a crooked foundation and a rough-hewn white cross. A plaque tacked next to the front door tells the building’s story. Or one version of the building’s story.
“This small log cabin was the home of Jack and Nellie Brown during the early 1920s,” it reads, citing a city history book called “Patterns of the Past.” “The Browns have been considered the earliest residents of Anchorage.”
Though it might be home to our city’s first citizens, the little cabin is not a museum or a designated historic site. Until recently, the Downtown Soup Kitchen, a charity affiliated with a network of evangelical Christian churches, used it for storage. But now the Soup Kitchen is moving. The land under the log cabin has been sold. As a condition of the sale, the building must be removed or torn down. So far, the little cabin is still standing. The deadline for demolition passed weeks ago.
City historians didn’t know the cabin was scheduled to be demolished until recently. The Alaska Association for Historic Preservation just named it among the Top 10 “Most Endangered Properties of 2012.” AAHP and the Anchorage Historic Preservation Commission sent letters to the Soup Kitchen in late June, asking it to hold off on demolition for 30 days.
“We’re coming up on the centennial for Anchorage,” said Elizabeth Grover, an architectural historian at the center of the effort to preserve the cabin. “There are so few buildings that have survived from that period.”
It is constructed of non-uniform logs made flat on three sides, a rare type of log-cabin construction done before World War II, she said.
The preservation organization letters came as a surprise to Mike Martin, president of the Soup Kitchen. I met him at the charity’s new building on Third Avenue last week and we walked over to look at the old cabin.
His understanding, after talking to the previous owner, was the building wasn’t actually as old as some said. For a year or so, the Soup Kitchen had looked for someone to take it. A group in Eagle River agreed to relocate it, but that fell through. The Soup Kitchen has to remove it, he said, or it will owe the new owners money. (Dennis Lavey, one of the new owners, told me they have no immediate plans for the land.)
Martin unlocked the cabin door and we stepped inside. It has 1960s paneling and carpet, with a little altar at one end. The outside has newer paint, but some of the logs are rotting and the caulking between them has peeled away, revealing the original burlap.
In the ’80s, the cabin was home to a Baptist street ministry that hosted services in its tiny sanctuary, he said. (“Downtown is a place of concentrated sin,” the church’s pastor, Robert Yahara, told the Anchorage Times in 1984. The church capacity then was 35, the story said.) When the Soup Kitchen took over, it became a storage space.
Operators of the Soup Kitchen would like to incorporate some parts of the church, including the old white cross, into their new facility, he said. They’d like to make a meeting table out of the old logs.
“A lot of prayer has happened in that building and that’s meaningful to us,” he said
If someone steps up with a plan, The Soup Kitchen will consider it, Martin said. Otherwise the log church will have to come down soon.
JACK AND NELLIE
Jack Brown, born in Scotland, was the first non-Native, long-term resident of Anchorage. He was a U.S. Forest Service worker (the Chugach National Forest was designated in 1907) who came to the shores of Ship Creek in 1912 with his new wife, an Eyak woman named Nellie. “Patterns of the Past,” says the cabin on Fourth Avenue was “probably their second residence.”
“Patterns of the Past” had two printings. The first says the cabin had been home to the Browns in the early ’20s. The updated version of the book says the cabin was built by a woman named Cora Berg. This version says the Browns lived there from 1925 to 1930. Afterward, it says, a Finnish family named Tuomi occupied the cabin.
The details are squishy. When did the Browns actually live there? And how do we know? One historian suggested I look up Mary Barry. She wrote a book about Browns. They used be her neighbors on Harvard Avenue on Government Hill. (You can find a park named for the Browns on the street, across from their last home.) Barry is in her 80s now.
Photographer Marc Lester and I gave Barry a ride to the Fourth Avenue cabin so she could give us her opinion. We helped her out of the car and she got out and walked around the cabin with her cane and her digital camera.
If the Browns had lived there, she told me, she’d never heard of it.
Barry said Nellie Brown showed her their second residence. It was a log cabin, but it was on L Street, Barry said. Later that afternoon, she called to say she had found a photo of the Brown’s second residence. I drove over and picked it up. It was a slide. “Old log house set up by Jack Brown 1916,” was written on the frame. Marc and I looked at it. The cabin pictured was not the little cabin on Fourth Avenue.
I took one more look at the first version of “Patterns of the Past,” which made the first association between the Browns and the cabin. In the back, I found a footnote. It said the information about the cabin came from “Personal communication with Mrs. Forrest Warwick, 1978.” The second version has no footnote. Was it possible everything was based on what someone said in 1978? Could it be the Browns never actually lived there?
I called Doug Gasek, another architectural historian involved with the Historic Preservation Commission. It was possible, he said.
“Personal communications are really great things to use to understand history a bit more but it’s always useful to have those substantiated with actual documentary evidence,” he said.
I found the obituary of Mrs. Forrest Warwick, aka Hazel Seaburg Warwick, who died in Anchorage in 2006 at the age of 88. It said she was born in 1917 at the old Alaska Railroad Hospital. She would have been a little girl during the time the Browns lived in the cabin. Maybe her memory was wrong? On the other hand, another newspaper story, written in 1998, said Warwick lived in the house her father built in 1915, located on the same block as the cabin, for almost her entire life. She probably had a good sense of the neighborhood and its history.
I went back to Grover. Even if it couldn’t be proved the Browns lived in the cabin, she still wanted to save it, she said. It might have less historical significance, but there are very few cabins as old in Anchorage, she said. It helps tell the story of Anchorage’s history.
Preservationists have been talking to people about places to relocate it, she said. So far, though, there isn’t a solid plan. Martin told me a demolition company has agreed to donate its services. If something is going to happen to save the building, it needs to happen soon, he said.
“It’s the 11th hour, 59th minute,” he said.
(Video by Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)