The abandoned residential school in Seward where the first Alaska flag flew will come down after the Seward City Council voted to demolish it.
The Jesse Lee Home, which has been abandoned since being damaged in the 1964 earthquake, has long been a source of contention in Seward. On the one hand, it’s where Benny Benson lived—the Alaska Native teenager who designed the state’s signature flag—and a piece of Alaska’s history. On the other, the building is a wreck, and efforts over the years to renovate it have never produced results.
The Seward City Council members who voted for the demolition said it was too late and too many other efforts to preserve the building have failed. Council member Sue McClure says she remembers the building being a blight on the neighborhood even when she was in high school.
“I’ve been here for 70 years in Seward. I’m a fourth generation Sewardite. I’m one of the people like many that testified that went to school with kids from Jesse Lee, and I was also with the Methodist Church, and all those kids were made to come to our church,” she said. “There were some good times and some bad times. I’m sensitive—obviously, if you know me—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 and it’s time.”
Members of the public were divided on what to do with the building, with some saying it should be preserved. The home was the second of three Jesse Lee homes, with the first built and abandoned in the Aleutians, and the third established in Anchorage after the ’64 quake damaged the one in Seward. It was run by the Methodist Church and provided care for primarily Alaska Native children, with a mixed legacy. Multiple commenters told the council they would be erasing Native history if they demolished the building.
Trish Neal, the president of the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation, told the council it wasn’t just about Benny Benson, but rather about the comprehensive history of the people who built better lives after living there. She said it could be renovated in stages as well, rather than all at once.
Others say they remember the building being a blight for years and that the cost of renovating it wasn’t worth it, suggesting compromises like memorials, children’s museums or parks. Seward city clerk Brenda Ballou read many of the written comments to the council to this effect.
Mayor Christy Terry says the history doesn’t have to be tied to the physical building.
“Seward loves history,” she said. “We want to preserve the legacy of this important institution in Seward. I think the spirit and purpose of what we’re moving forward with is important, and we’ve all talked about how we want as much of that building to be preserved as possible.”
The city had conditionally sold the building to the nonprofit Friends of the Jesse Lee Home, which said it would use state grants to renovate the home. But in 2019, after the state started asking where the approximately $2.2 million the group had received had gone, the nonprofit had few answers, and the building reverted back to city ownership. Now, the city will use about $1 million from the state to tear the building down safely, remove hazardous substances, and build a memorial on the site to honor the former residents and staff.
The city plans to have a followup community meeting with how best to redevelop the site into a memorial to commemorate the building after it is demolished and the hazardous materials safely removed.