I believe that this construction project may be an effort to rebuild California's first windmill, something which was destroyed so long ago that only faint sketches of it exist. However, Russian historians are working with American university personnel to build replicas of what once existed at Fort Ross.
The name of this building is probably not correct because in fact there are a lot of demonstration craft activities inside. There's a wood burning bread oven, a blacksmith's room, fur tanners' room, and a cabinet makers room, among other things.
Adjacent to the Rotchev house is another building that is used as Fort Ross administrative offices, at least in part, because it is located at the entrance to the stockade. I don't know the name or origin of this restored structure, but it's worth a walk through. I believe it's a recreation of the officer's quarters, which was originally built after the Kuskov House.
The interior construction of the house once had fine wall paper in the Russian style. There is also a nice central fireplace made of native stone. The furniture in the house now is a collection of antiques that resembles at least the lifestyle of the original occupants, the Rotchev Family.
The only structure dating back to Russian occupation is the Rotchev House, which was built in 1836, and subsequently named after Alexander Rotchev, the last manager of Fort Ross. Rotchev was well educated, well traveled, and married to a woman belonging to Russia's titled nobility. When Rotchev was ordered to sell Fort Ross in 1841, he found that neither the Mexican Government nor Hudson Bay company were interested, and eventually sold it on credit to John Sutter, who had settled in what is now Sacramento, the state capitol. Sutter emptied the fort of all belongs of value, but his subordinate found ranching opportunity at Fort Ross. In 1846, William and Josphine Benitz moved into the Rotchev house, and the structure was subsequently enlarged with a two story addition as the Benitz family were successful in their ranching enterprises, most of which were labored by local Indians. In 1868, the Benitz family sold Fort Ross to James Dixon and Charles Fairfax who rarely visited it but relied upon the value of the lumber in the 7,000 acre parcel. However, when Charles died, his wife Ada was forced to consolidate her wealth, and chose to move into the Rotchev House for a few years. In 1873, George Call, and his Chilean wife Mercedes Leiva, moved into the house, after Call purchased 2,500 acres, including Fort Ross, from Dixon. Call family then occupied Fort Ross until it was purchased for a State Historic Park. The Call family had built a second house outside the stockade, which is now also restored and part of the park. Meanwhile, the Rotchev house became leased by the Call family for use as hotel after 1880, serving as a social center because it had a saloon and dance hall within the old officer's quarter building next door. After the officer's quarter building was bulldozed, efforts to restore the Rotchev House began. In 1926, the Benitz addition was removed, and by 1941, the ranch style porch was also removed, the roof restored, and the home opened for historical purposes.
The coast of California offers very few level places for farming, but the Russians managed to find one along this bluff that stands several hundred feet above the sea. The could have found better land near the mouth of the Russian River, but it appears that the Russians were very concerned about finding a defensible location. There is in fact a significant slope in this terrain where they planned to farm. They may have had experience finding such unlikely places for agriculture, given the similarly rugged coastal stretches of Alaska, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands. In any case, they cleared the land of old growth redwood trees, the lumber of which was found to be easy carpenters work. The original fortifications and buildings had redwood foundations, reflecting the temporary plan of settlement as well as the remarkable rot resistance of redwood. The carpenter's trade would have added redwood mulch to a soil already rich in decomposing humus. While rain was plentiful enough in winter, the summer drought would have required irrigation from Fort Ross Creek. Similarly, California's growing season would have been much longer than Alaska's, but the routine blanket of fog would tend to stifle production. Nevertheless, the rugged frost free beauty of California coastline was no doubt a wonderful home for immigrant Russians, Alaskan Indians, and creoles that came to settle there, but eventually they learned that farming along this stretch of coastline was too difficult.
The second floor and attic spaces were devoted to living quarters for the administrator, expedition scientist, and officers. A central staircase divides the living quarters into a south and north side of the building. On the north side, the science officer's quarters were the most fascinating, revealing to the visitor the contribution Russian natural science was to the formal taxonomy of flora and fauna in California. Russian scientists, for example, entered Latin names for the California poppy, Grizzly bear, and California Sea Otter into the formal taxonomy of species. When the sea otter populations were found declining these naturalists, the Russian government was instrumental in organizing the first moratorium on hunting them along the California coast. (Unfortunately, the California Sea Otter is extinct along the Sonoma County coastline).
The officers quarters revealed just how spartan life was in those days. There was no big fireplace to keep the men warm. The staircase to the attic quarters with dormer windows was locked.
The first floor of the Kuskov House is devoted to warehousing supplies brought by ship. On the southwest corner is a room storing rifles, canon balls, and so serves as an arsenal. On the northwest corner is a room with dry goods--wooded pitch forks, candles, and a whole lot of other junk necessary for life in those days. This was perhaps the most fascinating part of Fort Ross as this was a museum of what life was really like. It was all very authentic.
The Kuskov House was the main administrative building, named after Ivan Kuskov, the founder and first administrator from 1812 to 1821. This building was reconstructed in 1983. All aspects of this structure were salvaged from Russian records, drawings, and descriptions by visitors, as there is no mention nor photographs of the building from the ranching era. This is the largest building on the property, having two full stories, and attic space with dormer windows. The logs are nicely shaped and fitted.
The chapel had been repaired and modified prior to the collapse of the walls in the 1906 earthquake. Remaining sections of the stockade also fell during the earthquake Fortunately, the roof wasn't so damaged, providing important information for reproduction. At one point, the chapel was rebuilt in a modification to have four windows, rather than three on the west face, then later a better restoration accidentally burned to the ground in 1971. After the 1971 fire, CA 1 was re-routed away from the Fort Ross grounds (it had actually gone right through the center of where the stockade had been, quite near the chapel). The last more substantial well funded effort reproduced the exact construction of the original, based upon photos and improved knowledge about the carpentry. The original bell and other religious artifacts had also been lost in the fire, but the bell was recast using materials from the original. This bell hangs today outside the entrance.
The wide planking and barrel like wood dome are very impressive and appropriate for religious atmosphere. The chapel has been visited by Russian Orthodox clergy, making this structure an important symbolic structure for all the Russian Orthodox Christians in California and Russia.
Needless to say, the blockhouses then and today serve mainly to provide a spectacular view of the California coastline, as well as a survey of the entire fortress complex. Barking sea lions can be heard if one listens carefully enough out the front windows, while settler conversations are easily discernible out the fortress side windows.
The Russians brought off their ships enough canons to prevent assault by the Spanish. This was not an idle threat as the Spanish had overrun similar settlements owned by the British on Vancouver Island just a few years before, a conflict that resulted in the Nootka Convention of 1793. The southwest blockhouse has a pitched roof and two stories with canons on both levels. The structure is also designed to allow protection along the entire exterior south and western walls with just a few men with rifles, a feature common to any stockade in North America. The amount of hardware in the southwest blockhouse, focused as it is on the ocean and cove, would have been more substantial than in the northeast blockhouse, which probably mostly fended off local indians trying to climb the walls. Nevertheless, the arrangement of the canons appeared to me haphazard enough to suggest that this blockhouse was being used for storage while the other was under construction. It's a lot of fun to run up and down the stairs in these buildings.
As mentioned, the excellent properties of the redwood was certainly a carpenters delight, so after digging the central well, labor was no doubt directed immediately to building the southwest blockhouse, and thereafter the stockade walls. The workmanship of these buildings far exceeds the traditional American fort stockade and log cabin elsewhere in the nation. Timbers were often squared off, precisely jointed, and pegged. Iron hinges for the gates, doors, and window shutters were also locally forged. Today, the entire stockade and blockhouse are reconstructions based upon photos of the ruins, historical documents, and the exact same techniques Russian carpenters used. In fact, as part of an exchange program in the 1980's, craftsman attached to the Russian Universities concerned with preservation of these skills were invited to help in training Americans for this reconstructive effort. Currently, the northeast blockhouse is under reconstruction.
The cove of Fort Ross reveals the narrow geographical opportunity the Russians found for their settlement enterprise. Better bays and estuaries further south and to the north apparently were already locked up by the Spanish, Americans, or British. The rugged coast of Northern California affords few places where a ship can anchor and level land can be settled. The half moon shaped cove has numerous rocks near it's entrance, with practically no protection from bad weather. In fact, several ships have sunk while anchored off shore, one of which is marked by a buoy. The cove is a very small estuary of Fort Ross Creek, with a beach of mostly a rough pea gravel--a poor surface for landing small craft in bad weather. The 1/2 mile climb up the hill to the location of the fort on a wind swept bluff plateau is quite steep. The gravel trail makes a complete S curve in an very steep gradient climb of several hundred feet. Now the hill climb is mostly thistle and grass, but at the time the Russians found it, it was probably redwood forest.