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Alta’s Danish church falls into history

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Alta’s Danish church is history. The town’s oldest building, erected in 1880 as a Danish Lutheran church and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, was knocked down last Wednesday by two backhoes.

Owners Jesse Barnett and Morgan Van Houton of Alta arranged for the demolition by order of the city council.

“They said it’s been too long and we’re not gonna wait,” said Barnett Saturday evening as he, his wife Kellee, their sons Gabriel and Shawn, and Van Houton rummaged through the pile that was once the church at the corner of Cherokee and West Fourth Streets.

The owners had been salvaging wood from the interior and asked for an additional month to continue — until June 30 — but the council held firm with their deadline of the end of May.

So ends the saga of the little church that many tried to save.

“I think the biggest issue is the city has been dealing with this church for close to 24 years or more, and for the first time, it was red tagged,” said Councilwoman Desi Suter last November. “And all the code violations have been ignored completely.”

After a building has been red-tagged, there must be improvements in 10 days.

November stretched into December, then winter passed and spring arrived. The owners argued that family issues kept them from improving the church.

Meanwhile the city fielded complaints from those who thought the church was an eyesore and in danger of collapse.

Barnett and Van Houton bought the church for $4,000 two years ago. This was after the city sued the former owner for neglecting the property. The new owners had plans to either sell the oversized antique or take it down.

“The city said it wasn’t safe to move,” said Kellee Barnett. Plans to obtain grants to renovate the building were unsuccessful. 

They’ve removed all the windows and much of the wood. “We wanted to take it down safe, from the top down,” said Barnett, but the May deadline approached and the owners realized they’d run out of time. They hired Reding Gravel and Excavating Company for the demolition.

The church was built by Danish immigrants and it originally stood outside of town. The wood is burr oak (“It wouldn’t go down,” said Barnett of the sturdiness of the structure) and is all hand sawn.

The Barnetts and Van Houtons are carefully removing the nails from the lumber and hauling the boards, some of them curved, to a safe place. They admire the old time craftsmanship, like joints that fit sturdy beams together like Lincoln logs. The square nails are forged and no longer manufactured today.

The stamped tin that lined the interior walls isn’t salvageable, but the wood will live on, in building projects and the nails especially are attractive to crafters.

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