SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska
Column - Commentary

Building Ketchikan, one room at a time!


November 23, 2020
Monday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
A while back a recent import to Our Fair Salmon City asked me if there was a particular type of Ketchikan architecture. You know, like salt box houses in New England or adobes in Sante Fe or panic rooms in Seattle.

jpg  Dave Kiffer

I kid.

Seattle doesn't really have or need multiple panic rooms. It is a lovely place. That's how I prefer to remember it. These days everything is fine in the Emerald City. All you need is one big panic room extending from Federal Way to Edmonds. Lock it up, throw away the key, and presto!

But I digress.

Anyway, the answer to my new friend's question is "not really."

Yes, some of the houses here vaguely resemble what the Norwegians call " byggeskikk." 

That unpronounceable Norwegian word is defined - by the Norwegian standard reference guide Merriamsen - Webstersen - as "folkelig arkitektur preget av bruk lokale materialer og kunnskap, vanligvis uten tilsyn av profesjonelle arkitekter."

Oops, wrong button there.

It is defined as "vernacular architecture characterized by the use of local materials and knowledge, usually without the supervision of professional architects."

That makes a heap of sense because, 1) many of the earlier houses in Ketchikan were built by Norwegian immigrants and 2) there's no way that a professional architect - or anyone with any building training whatsoever - would have signed off on them.

I call these buildings "Plus One" homes.

Basically, someone built a cabin-sized domicile on their property. Then, after a while, they decided they needed a little more room, so they cobbled on a storage shed.  After another while, the storage shed became full and they built another storage shed and converted the first one into a bedroom. And so on and so on and so on. Eventually, they had a single room house with nine storage sheds, I mean bedrooms, attached to it. Then they stuck two of the sheds together and created a garage because they needed even more room for their stuff.  Then they cabled three storage sheds together and made a boat garage.

Note they never made a garage for their vehicles. That's just not done here. It's more important to have indoor space for your boat and your stuff. We like our stuff. Our stuff is important to us. It's surprising that Ketchikan even has a landfill because as far I can tell, no one in Ketchikan ever throws anything out.

But I digress, again.

Anyway, the builder (and I use that term very loosely) ended up with that weird looking creation, a Ketchikan house with one cabin adjoined by a dozen or more storage sheds. Probably it should called the "one plus" but in reality there was never more than a plan to add a single extra room, so "Plus One" it is.

When you are in the market for a home, you can see dozens of these Ketchikan "Plus Ones." Invariably you see some very odd constructions and you wonder "what were they thinking" and you realize they weren't. It just kinda happened.

After a while, a more persnickity owner usually tries to unify the mess by building a single roof over the aggerate of sheds. That makes it look like it was all built together. Until, of course, you actually tour the "Plus One" and you discover that none of the walls and the floors of the different "rooms" match.

The best you can hope for is at least someone has attempted to unify everything by painting all the different rooms the same color. Or - as in the case of one of my relatives - they have slapped tar paper on all the walls.  For more than 30 years, his house - out the road, of course - was black. Finally, his third wife make him peel the rotted tar paper off and paint the house. Go figure.

But, every so often, someone at least tries to do something out of the ordinary in local housing. Sometimes it works, but most often it doesn't.

Recently I've noticed that three attempts to build outside the Ketchikan norm have finally succumbed to time and eventuality. They were all attempts to literally "think outside the box" of Ketchikan housing.

Get it?

Think outside the box.

Of housing?


Unfortunately, they did little to spur us past our "byggeskikk."

For many years, there was a circular house along Schoenbar Road.

I always thought it looked cool, like a refugee from Disneyland's "Tomorrowland" or Seattle Center.

I used to always wonder what it was like to like in pie-shaped rooms. And I always wanted to see inside it. Alas, it got torn down a couple of years ago and has been replaced by a more typical boring Ketchikan home. One with very few windows, I note, because in the dark and dreary bowels of Bear Valley, the last thing you want is any extra light getting in.

The other house that always caught my eye was a small geodesic dome on North Tongass Highway near the northern end of Shoreline Drive.

Once again, the idea of living in a house with round walls fascinated me and I always wanted to see inside it. I also found it interesting that, over time, the owners added normal extensions to the dome so that it eventually began to look like a regular house with a planetarium parked in the middle.  Of course, it is now gone too. And will be replaced, I assume, by a cabin surrounded by a dozen storage sheds.

The third house that has always interested me was a "modern" house that was built on upper Pine Street sometime in the 1970s.

It was one of the square, flatroofed houses with lots and lots and lots of windows that looked vaguely like Frank Lloyd Wright's "Falling Water." Definitely pretty high concept for Ketchikan. My memory is that it was built by a local doctor. Clearly one who never heard that two things leak in Ketchikan. Flat roofs and big picture windows.

I have now lived for the better part of two decades across the street from that house and the one thing that is obvious from watching the parade of workmen? That flat roof, like all Ketchikan flat roofs, has issues with "drainage."

I've been involved in a few public construction projects over the years and I am used to architects arguing again and again and again that flat roofs don't leak. And yet, with our generous allotment of precipitation, they always do.

This week, I have watched as the current owners of the Pine Street house have started to put up rafters and trusses. In order that the abundant Ketchikan rainfall will no longer pool on the roof and leak into the house.

In this case, the Ketchikan "Plus One" is a roof that may actually work.

At least for a few months, at least.




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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.

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