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The Sitka Summer Music Festival is rehabilitating Stevenson Hall, one of the iconic buildings on the Sheldon Jackson School National Historic Landmark. It is wonderful that the Sitka Summer Music Festival has a home where it began back in the 1970s on the Sheldon Jackson College campus. The rehabilitation is a huge benefit to our community. The $4.2 million project includes heat and ventilation.

However, the plan includes removing all the building’s windows and putting in plastic-clad Andersen A-Series replacements. I’m a fan of the Festival and have background in historic preservation, and would like to share information about why this would be a bad idea.

Experts, from the National Park Service to the state preservation office to local preservationists, also object to the Festival’s plan to replace windows. Replacing windows means replacing all the trim, and the plan also calls for replacing all the shingle siding, for loss of at least 85% of the historic exterior. This would destroy the historical integrity of the building, which I’m sure is not what the Festival and its donors want.

The Festival wants to have a modern, efficient building, that will securely house priceless musical instruments. Contemporary historic preservation science makes it possible to have all this, and retain historical qualities and material, too, more cost-effectively than it is to replace everything with new. However, none of the Festival’s staff or board has experience with historic buildings, and their architect has left the project.

We all value authenticity and history, and we understand this intuitively – that if you have a historic building, you do what you can to keep it historic. What many people don’t know is the contemporary historic preservation technology that allows us to keep historic character while efficiently modernizing: with good planning, you don’t have to make a choice between history and a comfortable, modern building.

The critical piece of technology is Interior Storm Windows. Interior storm windows have all the benefits, at a fraction of the cost, and with none of the downsides of full window replacement.

This is a large, complex and costly project on a National Historic Landmark building, and it is concerning that none of the staff or board have background in historic preservation and that the plan has been flagged by those who do.

Here is the letter sent by the Alaska State Historic Preservation Officer to the Festival on May 30 2019, on how the Sitka Summer Music Festival plan is in violation of mandatory Plat Notes and a covenant, and of their responsibility to preserve this National Historic Landmark for future generations:

Links and documents about the economics and technology of preserving historic windows can be found on the Documents page on this site.

On June 3 2019 Stevenson Hall was listed on the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation’s “10 Most Endangered” historic properties for 2019.

Why Replacing Historic Windows on Stevenson Hall is a Really Bad Idea

People in Sitka care about authenticity and history. It is part of our identity as Sitkans, and part of our economy. When we have a National Historic Landmark building, we do what we can to preserve what is authentic and historic about it.

If a part is too damaged to save, and you have to replace it, you replace it with something identical.

We also want to get historic buildings into reuse, so we have to make modifications for energy efficiency, accessibility, comfort, and security. We work to make sure that modifications do not destroy historic features.

“New construction” windows like the Andersen A-Series require replacing all the trim, which is a substantial part of the architecture of Stevenson Hall. Everyone who sees the building with plastic-clad replacement windows next to the authentic, historic buildings of the Landmark will notice it looks wrong, even if they can’t put their finger on exactly what it is. That’s too bad, but it is also completely unnecessary.

Don’t you have to replace windows for energy efficiency and to support indoor humidity control for protecting delicate musical instruments? No. All the benefits of double-pane windows are gained by installing a modern interior storm window. And, you can get storm windows that open.

These give you all the benefits of replacing windows, and better acoustics, with none of the downsides, at a fraction of the cost.

Another important factor is that the plans include an efficient heat-pump heating system, state-of-the-art mechanical ventilation, and complete air sealing.

Efficient heating, ventilation, and air sealing means that any window won’t make much of a difference in comfort, air quality, or heating costs.

Isn’t keeping windows too expensive? No. Replacing windows is too expensive – especially when you take into account their relatively short lifespan. Not only are the replacement units costly and expensive to ship, installing them involves major construction and fabricating and installing all new trim. On Stevenson Hall the trim is large and complex.

For the same cost you can fully restore historic windows and add interior storm windows. (Details below.)

But don’t old windows require too much maintenance? No. The existing windows are over 100 years old. Dozens of windows on the neighboring Landmark buildings have been thoroughly restored, by stripping them down to the wood, repairing and refinishing so they are literally as good as when they were first built.

Thoroughly restored windows are as good as new. They take no more maintenance than wood siding.

Replacement windows may be “maintenance-free” but that comes at a cost: they are not made to last. The glass seals are warranted for 20 years, the rest of the window only 10. Manufacturers estimate 35 years at the most before they need replacement again. You are replacing a permanent, historic window with one with seals that will fail, and plastic that will break down.

Another big problem on this project is that when it comes time to replace one of them, all the exterior trim has to come off in order to get the window out. Replacement windows are not designed to have elaborate trim, as on Stevenson Hall.

Besides the usual stewardship responsibility of owning a building in a National Historic Landmark, the property also has Plat Notes and a covenant requiring work meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The Festival agreed to this covenant when it purchased the property. The State Historic Preservation Office has determined that replacing windows does not meet the Standards, putting the Festival out of compliance with their legal obligations.

The main point is that replacement windows are inappropriate on a historic building, even if they had advantages. But, they don’t, and cause more problems than they solve. The Festival would be spending as much or more money, and would gain nothing in insulation or protection of the interior over interior storm windows. They would be replacing permanent, historic windows with plastic-clad windows designed to be replaced. They would replace something priceless, genuine and historic with something new and generic that could just as well be in a subdivision. They would be in violation of their responsibility to the public and future generations to preserve this National Historic Landmark, and creating problems for the future.

Preserving the windows is the right thing to do, it’s efficient and effective, it’s the easy choice, and it’s a solid legacy for the Festival.

Replacements Look Wrong

Replacement windows in a historic building can never look like the original, and they never look right. This will be an especially obvious contrast next to buildings that are intact. The entire new window assembly exterior, not just the sash, is molded plastic (“Fibrex,” which is 60% vinyl and 40% wood dust, and painted fiberglass (polystyrene) on the sash); the dividers are fake; and they install flush with the outside wall, so they look flat. They can’t match the craftsmanship or appearance of the originals.

Replacement Causes Additional Costs and Loss of Material

Installing these full-frame (“new construction”) replacements requires removing the old window and its frame and windowsill, adding framing for the opening and all new trim, so that once you replace windows, there is no going back.

Installing all new trim might not be an issue on an ordinary building. On this building, it is serious loss of most of the exterior.

Reusing old trim is problematic anyway, because it has already been cut to length – reusing it on windows that are configured differently would be difficult or impossible. So either you are trying to make old trim work, or, you replace it all, which is expensive and would eliminate most of the remaining historic material. In either case, you have a cascade of costs and loss that you would not have if you just kept the original windows.

Because of the way these windows are made, to install from the outside of the building, all the trim has to be removed in order to replace one when it goes bad, which I don’t think the Festival has thought through.

In addition, the Festival’s plans call for taking off all the siding and trim, and adding air channel, which would make the wall thicker, further complicating any reuse of trim. (The wall assembly does not need air channels and performs well. Air sealing and insulation in the plan is by 1 1/2 inch Expanded Styrofoam insulation, on the inside surface of the walls.) Plans also call for replacing all of the shingle siding, which is not necessary and means there will be almost nothing left of the original exterior.

This Building is Historically Significant

This is a National Historic Landmark for its association with Alaska Native education, and the Founders of the ANB. It includes the suppression of Indigenous language and culture, and the strength of men and women who used the tool of education to fight for civil rights. It’s important and difficult history that should not be forgotten. Standing in the place, experiencing authentic spaces missionaries and students did, connects us and helps our understanding of those times and those people, like nothing else can.

The other reason is the remarkable architecture, and the intact survival of the entire suite of unique buildings. It would really be too bad to lose the architecture now when it’s survived more than 100 years.

Replacing Windows is Opposed by All Historic Preservation Specialists

Unfortunately, none of the Festival board or staff has experience with historic preservation. Their architect did have training in preservation architecture (and he recommended keeping the windows), but he and the Festival parted ways in May and he is no longer on the job. Even when he was, however, he was not acting as a historic architect on this project: the plans don’t mention what the historic features of the building are or how the plan would meet the Standards, which are the basics of a historic architecture plan.

Incorrect terminology throughout the plan and presentation, including incorrectly naming the Landmark and the title of the Standards, further show this lack of familiarity with historic preservation methods and goals.

Other parts of the Festival’s plan don’t meet the Standards: the way the addition is designed and new features like a balcony and bay window. Additions are fine, but should be designed to not detract from the architecture. The two-story addition would require removal of a wall and part of a roof, in order to add on 20 feet and build a copy of that wall and roof, that would be designed to look continuous with the original building. The appropriate way to add on to a historic building is to do it so you can still tell what was there originally, which also saves costs when you don’t have to try to tie the old and new together seamlessly. The plan eliminates the classical symmetry and proportions of the north and west walls.

These changes add to the incremental, and permanent loss of character and materials of the Landmark. The Alaska State Historic Preservation Office accepted those changes because they will be mostly out of sight from the front of the building.

The State Historic Preservation Office did not approve replacing the windows. The National Park Service and the local Historic Preservation Commission also object to replacing windows.

Replacing Windows Puts the Festival Out of Compliance with Mandatory Historic Preservation Plat Notes

Sitka people value history and authenticity. That is why, when Stevenson Hall was subdivided from the college in 2010, the City facilitated the addition by the owner of mandatory preservation plat notes on the property requiring work be done to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. These were added in an effort to protect the National Historic Landmark. The Festival also has a covenant on the property, from a federal grant for repairing the foundation, that requires the same thing.

The Standards are guidelines for working on historic buildings: First, you identify what it is that defines its historic character. Then you plan your work to conserve those elements as much as possible.

In January 2019 the State Historic Preservation Officer determined that replacing the windows does not meet the Secretary’s Standards. They determined that the Festival’s plans for the windows put it out of compliance with the covenant and with the plat notes on the property.

They sent a further, strongly-worded letter on May 30.

The City and Borough of Sitka does not enforce plat notes (of any kind), but that does not mean they are not legally binding. The Festival has stated that they will wait for the covenant to expire in October 2019 before removing the windows. That does not make them in compliance. More significantly, the Festival would be violating the intention of plat notes and covenant, which are to protect the integrity of this National Historic Landmark for the benefit of future generations.

Historic Preservation 101

The goal of historic Rehabilitation is to bring buildings into productive use – energy efficient, comfortable, accessible, safe – while saving what it is that makes it historic in the first place.

It’s not complicated, but it is different from working on non-historic buildings. It starts with analysis of what is most important to preserve, and looking carefully for alternatives that will solve problems while at the same time keep historic materials and character.

Each case will have different considerations, in weighing function, costs, and practicability against permanent loss of authenticity, character and materials. For example, a modification that meets the Standards is accessibility ramping. This is very important to a building’s function, and has little impact on its appearance or character. Another example of an acceptable solution is using architectural asphalt shingles instead of wood. “Architectural” grade asphalt shingles have the same texture as wood shingles, which means little is lost in character. (Also, on these buildings, in 1910 the architects specified either wood or asphalt shingles.) And, roofing is made to be replaced, and asphalt shingles now do not prevent a wood roof in the future.

Are the windows important to the historic character of Stevenson Hall? Yes. A Getty Foundation-funded Historic Preservation Plan from 2004 listed the original windows, which comprise nearly half the surface of the building, as a defining feature. This is often the case with historic buildings. The windows are important, and replacing them would mean losing this important architectural feature.

Replacing windows also requires replacing all window trim. Siding and trim are also listed in the Preservation Plan as defining features.

The main point is that if you have a National Historic Landmark building, you will do what you can to preserve its historical character and materials, even if it requires compromising other aspects of the building’s function or cost. But in this case, you don’t have to:

Adding Interior Storm Windows Has the Same Benefits as Replacing Entire Window

The Festival believes that replacement windows better protect the building’s interior acoustics, heat, and air, which they need because they house priceless musical instruments.

Fortunately, you get the same benefit – and better acoustic performance – by adding interior storm windows, at a fraction of the cost. This is well documented in many studies, by states, universities and other entities. Some references and studies can be found on the Documents page on this site or at windowpreservationalliance.org.

Most manufacturers offer operable storm windows, with a part that opens. There are some of these in the Laundry Building on the Sheldon Jackson School NHL.

First, even double pane windows are not good insulation. You get essentially the same energy-efficiency benefits by adding a storm window. Replacement is not recommended even in ordinary buildings: by the time you recoup your costs in energy savings, the windows have had to be replaced again.

The plans call for air sealing and an efficient heating system, and mechanical heat-recovery ventilation throughout. Every room has mechanical (as opposed to passive) ventilation. The main room has two systems – one kicks in when there are large numbers of people gathered and the humidity gets too high. A window won’t make much of a difference in indoor air quality.

Historic Window Restoration Makes Them Literally Good as New

These windows are reparable, and the technology to restore windows is close at hand: the Fine Arts Camp has been restoring windows on the neighboring buildings, using a steam box to strip the windows then making repairs and refinishing, so the windows are good for another 110 years. All of the windows have been easily reparable, which is remarkable when you consider their great age (109 years) and lack of maintenance, especially in the last decades of the college. The most that has been required is the replacement of the bottom rail. That is because these windows were made to last, out of high quality, old-growth wood. Restoration includes the varnish inside on the beautiful Douglas fir.

There are also many commercial services in the Seattle area who do this.

When properly repaired, they take no more maintenance than wood siding. Yes you have to paint them, but you should be painting your siding on that schedule.

Paying the Price for “Maintenance Free”

Replacement windows, by contrast, are not made to last. They last no more than 35 years, with many failing long before that, on an exponential curve, and the entire unit has to go to the landfill. (The Andersen windows are guaranteed for 20 years on the glass, which is about when many seals fail, and only 10 years on the rest of the window. It is for replacement only, not labor.)

The selling points of these windows are also their weakness: “no maintenance” vinyl and fiberglass deteriorates. The seals in double-pane glass fail. These buildings and their windows were made to last, which is not the case for replacement windows.

Restoration costs money for labor. The Festival estimates the cost to restore windows and add interior storm windows at $5000 apiece, which is also roughly what replacing windows would cost. But, they are good indefinitely.

The replacement windows cost in the neighborhood of $2000 just for the replacement unit with shipping. Labor is going to be about that amount again, plus the cost of buying and installing new trim, which is a major part of the building’s surface, so that the cost is the same – possibly more – than the cost to restore. In addition, making one change to an old building often means other changes have to be made, that you didn’t anticipate. You aren’t saving money.

Restoration is a long term investment, saving beauty and character and saving the cost of having to replace the replacements. An added benefit of repairing existing windows is it keeps donated money in the community by employing local tradesmen instead of paying for factory windows.

Keeping Windows is the Right Choice

What is great is that making preservation a priority and restoring windows on Stevenson Hall does not call for hard choices. It is cost effective, longer lasting, better looking and has all the benefits of full replacement, at less cost to the environment. It would bring the Festival into compliance with the law.

I’m sure musicians and other visitors would much rather experience an authentic space, with the actual varnished windows and wood that was there when students used the building, and not the all-new surfaces that could be anywhere in the world.

I know that the Festival has the best intentions, and that they are making decisions based on their past experience and understanding of what is best. That understanding might be adequate if it was an ordinary building. However, on this historic structure, they must learn about and integrate historic preservation expertise, technology and best practices. They must do their due diligence, and consult with experts in the field, and listen to what they have to say. They must do their own research, do the math, and learn about how and why we preserve historic buildings.

Replacing windows would make this building an imitation of what it is, would cause unnecessary and irreversible loss of everything that makes it historic in the first place, and it will detract from the rest of the Landmark.

I’m sure the Festival contributors, whether private donors or foundations, don’t want to be associated with the loss of a historic building, especially when the expertise is available to do it right, at the same or less cost. Restoration is the responsible, long-term option, for the public and for the Festival. The Festival will leave a legacy it can be proud of.

A Few Other Preservation Notes:

Another place the plan can be improved is the proposal to take all the siding off and put it back on. Prying off siding and trim will cause damage that could be avoided by restoring siding and trim in place. In addition, the plans call for adding air channel, which would make the wall thicker, which would make it really tricky to reuse old trim.

The wall functions well without air channel; there is no need to take the siding off. The Festival can weigh the benefits against the costs of removal, taking into consideration that the plans include an efficient heating system, and air sealing and insulation on the interior of the wall, with 1 1/2 inch “Styrofoam” board lining all the walls.

The interior of Stevenson Hall has been extensively remodeled, with little to be seen that’s original. In the plans for redoing the interior, white-painted beadboard wainscoting and trim is specified. Why not take the original interior trim as an inspiration? Originally these buildings had plain walls and wide varnished baseboard and window trim. This could be less expensive than all that beadboard, and varnished wood would probably be more attractive.

When these buildings were made, bead board was for utilitarian areas like kitchens. The original wainscoting in the student dining room seems to have been linoleum.

The entry of North Pacific Hall. E. W. Merrill photo, collection Sitka National Historical Park, SITK_2572.
Sheldon Jackson School student dining room, which was in the west end of North Pacific Hall. E. W. Merrill photo, collection Sitka National Historical Park, SITK_25598.

 

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