FAIRBANKS — It takes a village to raise a child, and it nearly took one to construct Birch Leaf Chapel in Ester.
The dream child of Denise and Chris Akert, the chapel was designed by hometown architect Lilian Fitch, now based in Brooklyn, and worked on by 15 craftsmen and artists.
It took 31/2 years, but the Akerts are ready to open their chapel door to the public. They are hosting a Nov. 6 First Friday showing, not with a traditional art show, but as a stand-alone 450-square foot building that itself is the art. On Dec. 6, St. Nicholas’s Day, Denise and her daughter will sell craft items during a holiday bazaar at the chapel.
Denise, who hails from Switzerland, said her native country is dotted with tiny chapels all over the countryside and she wanted to bring one to Ester, adding the Alaska theme of birch trees.
“I wanted something festive and special,” Denise, a nurse at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital for 34 years, said. “Something spiritual but not religious, a place to celebrate the circle of life.”
Chris, an excavating contractor, had purchased 11/2 half acres at 3626 Old Nenana Highway and soon determined it was the perfect place for his wife’s vision of a chapel to come to fruition. The structure is perched atop a hill of gold mine tailings.
Everything in the chapel is exquisitely designed and executed, including the wood stove Chris went to Germany to purchase, the door shaped like a birch leaf, the birch flooring and the wrought iron light fixtures. The show-stealer is the stained glass work Denise created. A floor-to-ceiling window scene of a birch tree is stunning, and the upper panes exhibiting the four seasons of the boreal forest are breathtaking. When the morning light hits the windows, the colors reflect off the opposite wall.
Even the heated outhouse is unique, with its circular shape and copper sink.
The chapel will seat up to 30 people for weddings, memorial services, concerts, recitals, art exhibits or meditation classes. What Denise doesn’t want is for the chapel to be party central. “I don’t want balloons or dances or meals here,” she said.
The Akerts are still determining the cost to rent the space, but renters will need to sign a contract and pay a deposit. “We’ll see how things work, how people respond,” Denise said.
Neighbors in Ester were skeptical about the chapel at first, Denise said, but now they thank the Akerts for adding to the community. “It’s brought the neighborhood to a new standard,” Chris said. “It turned out to be a piece of art, a jewel, and I hope it makes Ester a destination and revives it a little bit.”
“It’s nerve-wracking right now,” Denise said. “We’ve been spending money on this, and now we have to figure out the legalities and the maintenance. It took us so long to get here; we’re in no rush.”
Next on the Akerts’ list is starting a website and Facebook page. In the meantime, anyone interested in the chapel may call Denise at 378-4487.
Former News-Miner reporter Nancy Tarnai is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.