Sitka lies in a protected harbor on the western shore of Baranof Island. Once the capital of Russian America, its architecture represents elements of the three cultures—Native, Russian, and American—that are the legacy of Alaska. A group of Tlingit lived in the area and resisted the Russian-American Company's first attempt to establish a stronghold here in 1799. Those Natives were finally driven out by the company in 1804, however, and it was not until the 1820s that they were permitted back on the island. They then established a community on the northwest side of town, just outside a stockade built by the Russians. They replaced their traditional plank houses with American-style dwellings by the 1890s, and a few of these second-generation buildings remain—large gable-fronted buildings on Katlian Street.
The Russians occupied Sitka in 1804 and in 1808 moved the capital here from Kodiak. As the hub of government, trade, and religion in the Russian colony, Sitka was also the cultural center. Visitors commented on the Russians' lavish hospitality; at the governor's house, parties featured music, dancing, and imported liquors. Most importantly, Sitka was a port city, with shipbuilding facilities and a steady stream of visiting vessels.
The buildings were generally constructed of hewn logs of large Sitka spruce that had been logged locally and ranged from one-room houses to three-story barracks. In 1816, Sitka's first church was built, but it was replaced in the 1830s and again in 1844–1848. The latter was a cathedral. Located in the center of the main street, it was an impressive cruciform structure featuring an octagonal dome at the crossing and an 84-foot bell tower.
Russia's transfer of Alaska to the United States in 1867 was marked by a small ceremony in Sitka, at which the Russian flag was lowered and the Stars and Stripes raised. The site of this event, Castle Hill, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The Russian governor's mansion dominated the city from atop this promontory; it was destroyed by fire in 1894. Sitka's main street was named Lincoln Street, and after an initial frenzy of entrepreneurial activity, Sitka settled into quiet times, although it served as the capital of Alaska until 1900. Sheldon Jackson, the indefatigable Presbyterian missionary, made Sitka the focus of his efforts beginning in 1882, running a vocational school for Natives, founding a museum of Native artifacts, and advocating the replacement of Native dwellings with modern American ones.
By the early twentieth century, salmon canneries and commercial fishing were the mainstays of the town's economy, as they continue to be today. The Naval Operating Base on Japonski Island across Sitka Harbor caused a flurry of activity in Sitka during the Second World War; after the war the base was turned over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which established a Native boarding school there. Previously connected by ferry, the island is now served by the O'Connell Bridge, the first cable-stayed, girder-span bridge in the U.S., completed in 1972. The construction of a pulp mill in 1960 further broadened Sitka's economic base.
Although the commercial heart of town continues to be Lincoln Street, which runs parallel to the shoreline, a devastating fire in 1966 destroyed the cathedral and neighboring commercial structures. Consequently, the street does not have the architectural cohesion found on most main streets. It still functions as the main street, however, stretching about a mile east to west, from a collection of totem poles on a battleground, past the former missionary school (now Sheldon Jackson College), past a residential area and a recreational harbor, past the rebuilt cathedral in the commercial center to the working harbor near the original Indian Village. To walk it is to walk through time and cultures, as reflected in the buildings.
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