Set on a picturesque harbor, the Church of the Holy Ascension is one of Alaska's most impressive Russian Orthodox churches. Constructed in 1894, it is one of the oldest surviving, and with three altars it is one of the largest. The massing of the building, which defines the interior uses on the exterior, is striking and unusual.
In plan, the church takes the form of a Latin cross. With its hip roofs, however, the design focuses attention upward, not sideways. The two-story nave is crowned by a pyramidal roof, which is topped by a cupola with onion dome. The two side chapels and sanctuary are separate elements, with hip roofs
The interior of the nave is cavernous in feeling, as much due to its size (36 feet by 41 feet by 22 feet high) as to the lighting. The side chapels, which measure 20 feet by 21 feet and are one story, seem almost miniature in comparison. On the interior, light is manipulated to focus attention on the iconostas and altar. The only windows to the outside are on the side walls, toward the rear, and on the west wall, high up; the latter were added shortly after construction. At the east end of the nave, windows borrow light from the side chapels to illuminate the iconostas. The sanctuary, by contrast, has four windows, so that when the doors in the iconostas are opened, light streams toward the altar and spills out into the nave in a dazzling display.
Unalaska received this cathedral-like church just after the Russian Orthodox church had divided Alaska into two districts, with Unalaska being the administrative center for the western half and Sitka for the eastern. Unalaska had previously served as a base for Russian Orthodox missionaries, particularly for Father Ioann Veniaminov, who was assigned here in 1824. Father Veniaminov traveled widely throughout the territory, translated the Bible into the Aleut language, gained the trust and respect of the Natives, and built the first Church of the Holy Ascension. In 1834, Veniaminov was transferred to Sitka; he was named a bishop and eventually became metropolitan of the church in Russia.
Because of Unalaska's traditional importance to the Russian church in Alaska, the church contains a wealth of icons, including two in the Byzantine style dating to 1821; an icon of scenes from the life of the Virgin said to have miraculous powers; and an icon of Saint Panteleimon covered by a silver riza. Icons along the top of the iconostas in the north chapel, dedicated to Saint Innocent of Irkutsk, are believed to have been painted by Vasilii Kriukov, an Aleut artist, and to have been on the iconostas of the first church in Unalaska. Carved ornament on the iconostas, such as the swags above the icons and the lyres below, may date to the church built by Father Innocent in 1825.
Little is known about the origin of the spectacular design of this church. Bishop Nicholas arranged with Rudolph Newman, general agent of the Alaska Commercial Company, for its construction; the company charged $9,350. The bishop provided the company with plans, and the company hired an architect to turn them into detailed drawings, but the designer remains unknown.