One of the things that calls attention to the particulars of place in our travels is the poetry of buildings on the landscape: from Frank Lloyd Wright’s love of the red barns in Wisconsin, to log cabins, abandoned farmhouses, country churches, old gas stations, perhaps a sign (Texaco) or a single pump still standing.
Buildings speak also of heritage. The immigrant influence. All of which calls us home—back to wherever it all began and was reborn here in some visage of the past, whether it was our own heritage or someone else’s.
Door County is blessed with a history of many cultures, especially Scandinavian. From the Viking-like presence of the Village Hall in Ephraim, to the authentic beauty of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik in Sister Bay, which defines the whole village. The exterior/interior logs, imported from the old country, the grass roof, wood carvings, rosemaling, the Scandinavian dishes on the menu all beckon that within us searching for a connection to a real past. It is surprising that more of this old world experience is not evident on the peninsula.
Washington Island, however, harbors a real, almost hidden historical treasure: the Stavkirke (Church of Staves) based on drawings of one built in Borgund, Norway in 1150 AD. This was a home-grown project, another testament to ‘life in a small town,’ community effort, where skilled local craftsmen, under the direction of head carpenters, John Herschberger, Dale Bjarnarson, and a half-dozen volunteers, came together whenever time permitted, mostly in summer. John began laying the foundation of mortared beach stone and cement in 1992, then covered it all with a shed, which made it possible for the men to work on the building a few mornings each week, even in winter.
The original project of the Stavkirke is attributed to the Reverend James Reiff .a pastor on the Island in the early 1980’s who felt such a structure would reflect the immigrant influence on the Island. Sister Bay architect, Pat Mangan offered a personal interest of stav history to the project, made the drawings based on the Borgund stavkirke and the list of necessary materials.
David Ranney carved the dragon heads, based on the style of the old Stavkirke.
Washington Island ferry captain and author, Richard Purinton did the carved roof boards while Gary Hendrickson carved the panels in the altar, and his wife painted the faux marble supports on the altar. The beautiful model of the Mackinac schooner that hangs from the knave was built by head carpenter, John Herschberger.
The project was completed and dedicated the summer of 1995. Landscaping and the bell tower followed in time. Seven years later, by 1999, everything was in place.
The attraction to the Stavkirke was immediate. There was a period of time during its construction that almost any mention of the Island was followed by the question “Have you seen the Stavkirke?”
Be it history, old world beauty, spirit, there is something about this structure so compelling “You just have to see it.” A ‘prayer path’ leads you through the woods.
Great architecture commands reverence. The past is present.
5,000 or more people visit the Stavkirke annually. There are Wednesday evening services in summer at 7 p.m. Both baptisms and weddings are held there, upon request. The Trinity Lutheran Church, just across the road, is the owner and manager of the property.