A nationally recognized historic structure – the Jesse Lee Home in Seward – will be demolished after the Seward City Council voted 5-1 to destroy one of Alaska’s most historic landmarks.
Despite hearing from 29 people, 19 of whom pleaded with the city to save the birthplace of the Alaska state flag, council members cast their votes on July 13 in what appeared to be a foregone decision. The vote brings an end to decades of debate, engineering studies and proposals on how to save the Jesse Lee Home.
The plan is now to spend $1.3 million to demolish the building. Most of that cost is covered with a state grant. Estimates to stabilize the building for future restoration came it at $1.7 million according to Seward’s Community Development Director Jackie Wilde. To completely restore the home would have cost around $27 million.
“No one can understand why you would demolish a nationally recognized landmark…”
Multiple efforts to preserve the Jesse Lee Home have failed since it was abandoned after being damaged in the 1964 earthquake. Most recently the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home owned the structure until last summer. The nonprofit attempted to restore the building, but was unsuccessful in its effort to establish a school on the site. Due to the lack of progress, the State of Alaska ultimately terminated a grant it had awarded The Friends of the Jesse Lee Home for the restoration project.
In the 1920s a young Alaska Native boy, Benny Benson, designed the Alaska state flag while residing at the orphanage and school. There the flag first flew in 1927, providing a spark for the Alaska Native rights movement. The home was also the last standing building of Fort Raymond which helped protect Alaska’s supply chain during World War II. Built by the Methodist church to house children displaced by the Spanish flue, the home was also visited by the famous sled dog Balto.
Public comment to save the building, which is listed on the National Historic Register, was passionate. Many saying demolishing the building would be to destroy an integral part of the town’s identity and history.
“What is wrong with you people. You are supposed to be representing the will of the people and the best interests of the community,” said Marty Lorenz. “The whole state is watching. The whole state has offered to help. Why would you say no? No reasonable person would say no. No one, and I mean no one can understand why you would demolish a nationally recognized landmark that structural engineers looked at in February of this year and said was still a good candidate for rehabilitation.”
“Please save this building. A mere monument plaque will not replace this magnificent home.”
Lifelong Seward resident Candy Norman agreed.
“I’m appalled the City of Seward believes Jesse Lee should be destroyed,” she said. “I was born in Seward in 1948 and have resided here since.”
During the 1964 earthquake she and her family found shelter in the Jesse Lee Home.
“We were all raised with friends residing in Jesse Lee and very proud the flag came from Benny Benson at Jesse Lee Home,” Norman added. “Please save this building. A mere monument plaque will not replace this magnificent home.”
Others disagreed and said the aging structure was a liability and its demolition long overdue. Several people suggested turning the land into a playground, children’s museum or daycare facility that included information about the area’s history. Others thought it would be nice to have a gazebo on the site.
The council heard from two historic building preservationists who said they were willing to help stabilize the building for the interim until a long-term restoration plan could be finalized.
“I’m sensitive to history. So, it’s a tough one to think about what we’re doing…”
Most city council members were unmoved.
“We’re just to a point where we’ve had so many people come in and say, you know, that they can fix it, they can do something with it,” Council Member Dale Butts said of past efforts. “It has taken so long. I think probably 30 years ago this could have been viable. It could have worked, but not now.”
Vice Mayor Sue McClure agreed but seemed conflicted with the monumental vote.
“I’ve been here for 70 years in Seward,” she said. “I’m sensitive to history. So, it’s a tough one to think about what we’re doing in the sense of maybe – as some people have said – destroying history, but we’re not. It’s a building that was being broken into when I was still in high school and I’m old. It’s a hazard. It’s time.”
Seward Mayor Christy Terry defended the city against what she thought were unfair attacks.
“I believe from what I’ve been reading, Seward is being painted in a light that we don’t respect our history,” she said. “And right now we are looking at a situation where we’re talking about a building. We have the opportunity to preserve the history and the legacy of a very important structure to the Alaska people, but it doesn’t mean that we have to preserve the building.”
Instead, the mayor said she liked the idea of saving some of the wood inside the Jesse Lee Home to make a monument or other memorial. She also suggested putting the home’s historical records in a vault which people could access and study. As far as the future of the site goes, she wants to hold a community meeting to discuss options about turning the area into a museum, daycare center, pavilion or playground.
“I think all those things are important in preserving the importance of that site,” Terry said.
The final vote had Mayor Christy Terry, Vice Mayor Sue McClure, John Osenga, Dale Butts and Tony Baclann voting to destroy the building. Sharyl Seese voted against it.