A Marvelous Harvest

Book by book, the Buildings of the United States series is painting the nation?s architectural portrait.

By Arnold Berke

Point Hope, in far northwestern Alaska, pushes into the Chukchi Sea some 60 miles east of where today meets tomorrow at the International Date Line. But yesterday is of primary interest here, for this treeless, seemingly inhospitable spit of land claims to be the oldest continuously peopled place in North America. One of its vanished settlements, Ipiutak, was settled more than 2,000 years ago by ancestors of today's northern Alaska Eskimos. Another village, Tigara, has survived by twice moving away from the advancing sea. In its second location, abandoned in 1976, stands a century-old dwelling that architectural historian Alison K. Hoagland calls "one of the most extraordinary vernacular structures in America."

The Nanny Ooyahtona House, named for its last inhabitant, is a rare surviving example of the traditional sod-covered habitations once common on this distant peninsula, where caribou, bear, whales, and walruses gave sustenance. In the summer of 1990, Hoagland went searching for the house amid a cluster of remnant dwellings?"basically furry mounds," as she calls them. "No one was around. Finally I found it, went inside with a lot of trepidation, then discovered that the whole place was lined with whale bones. So amazing! I'd never seen anything like it."

In a land where wood is scarce, sturdy bones from the marine mammals were for centuries used to frame and infill the walls and ceilings of houses. The bones, long and gracefully curved, also fenced in nearby Point Hope Cemetery, the tallest pair touching at the top to form an entry arch, bleached and raw but confidently Gothic.

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