As Kenai's bluff erodes, one historic house gets a new home
When Louisa and Fred Miller bought their house from the Hermansens in Old Town Kenai in the 1950s, they probably didn’t think it would ever be that close to the edge of the bluff.
“I know a fellow here in Kenai that when he was a little boy, he used to mow that lawn. And there was probably, I don’t know, 100 feet out in front of that house going out before the bluff," said John Thornton, who runs a contracting business in Kenai.
He said, until recently, there was just eight feet of ground between the house on Main Street and the edge of the bluff.
That part of the bluff, in Kenai’s Old Town, is eroding at a rate of three feet a year due to waves and storms at the mouth of the Kenai River. The city of Kenai is planning on stabilizing a section of that bluff, including the old Hermansen-Miller house site.
But as of recently, Thornton said it was getting almost too dangerous to go inside. So he bought the house and moved it to a safer spot, a quarter of a mile or so away.
“And I kinda wanted to keep it in Old Town Kenai," Thornton said. "And I found a piece of property over by the Russian Orthodox Church.”
That’s where the house will stand now, on Mission Avenue. It’s currently on the back of a trailer. But next week, Thornton plans to dig the new foundation and lower the house into its new home.
It’s quite the undertaking for one of the city’s historical landmarks. The Hermansen-Miller house was built around 1916 and is considered the first frame house in Kenai. Everything built before it was made out of logs.
For a while, it was also an ice cream parlor. Peggy Arness, of Nikiski, remembers going to that house for ice cream with her sons and seeing the owner, Louisa Miller.
“Louisa was always around and willing to help, serving coffee — whatever," Arness said. "She was just a gracious person.”
Miller moved to Anchorage from Washington in 1941, according to her entry in the Kenai Historical Society’s book on Kenai’s homesteading history, “Once Upon the Kenai.” She met her husband, Fred, that same year, and in 1951 they moved to Kenai, where he had anchored as a commercial fisherman.
Back then, the Hermansen-Miller House was Kay’s Lunch, where Miller would go for ice cream and help the owner. When Fred heard she liked the place, he bought it for her.
She wrote in the book, “I didn’t want it and didn’t know what to do. I soon learned. I opened at 12 noon to 12 midnight. The first day I took in $9.30.”
Arness said it became a popular spot.
“Because there wasn’t anything like it," Arness said. "There were bars in town. But there wasn’t any place like it. Except for Thornton’s, the gas station. When she was there, she was entertaining. She chatted a lot. She was just a happy-go-lucky person.”
Arness said Miller joined as many boards as she could and was active with the local senior center and Catholic church.
She even held a makeshift Catholic church in her ice cream shop. At least one Kenai couple — Leo and Marion Oberts — got married there.
“Father Thompson, our priest, faced the people over the counter,” Miller wrote in the book. “Later, when I leased the ice-cream parlor out, we had Catholic mass in Kenai Joe’s bar.”
Eventually, the Millers moved out of state, where Louisa died. But she wrote in her entry, “My heart belongs to Kenai and although I plan to sell, I’ll never leave Kenai.”
The house also held a doctor’s office and, at another time, a law office. Its last owners used it as a vacation rental.
Thornton, the contractor, said they stopped about two years ago, since they were nervous about it being too close to the bluff.
That’s when they reached out to Thornton. He had to get permission from the city to move the house, since they were moving it into the Kenai Historic District. City Planning Director Ryan Foster said anytime a building is to be moved or built in that part of the city, the Planning Commission has to make sure the new structure will fit with the character of the area.
To get the house out of the ground, Thornton said they dug underneath the structure, put in lifting beams and jacked the house up. They worked with Homer Electric Association and GCI to get under some of the nearby cables and lines.