The abandoned residential school in Seward where the first Alaska flag flew will come down.
The Seward City Council voted Monday to demolish the nearly century-old building.
The Jesse Lee Home for Children, which has been abandoned since the 1964 earthquake damaged it, has long been a source of contention in Kenai Peninsula community.
On the one hand, it’s where Benny Benson lived — the Alaska Native teenager who designed the state’s flag — and a piece of Alaska’s history. It was a school for hundreds of children from 1926 to 1964. Most were Alaska Native kids displaced from tuberculosis- and flu-ravaged villages.
On the other, the enormous building continues to decay, and efforts over the years to renovate it have never produced results.
The Seward City Council members who voted for the demolition said too many other efforts to preserve the building have failed.
Council member Sue McClure said she’s a fourth-generation Seward, and went to school with children from the Jesse Lee Home.
She said she doesn’t see tearing down the building as destroying history, but as removing a hazard.
“It’s a building that was being broken into when I was still in high school, and I’m old,” she said.
Members of the public were divided on what to do with the building. Some said it should be preserved.
The home was the second of three Jesse Lee Homes. The first was built and abandoned in the Aleutians. The third was established in Anchorage after the 1964 earthquake damaged Seward’s. It was run by the Methodist Church and provided care for primarily Alaska Native children, with a mixed legacy.
Multiple people told the council Monday 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 about the comprehensive history of the people who built better lives after living there. She said it could be renovated in stages, rather than all at once.
Others said the cost of renovating the building wasn’t worth it, and suggested compromises like memorials, children’s museums or parks.
Mayor Christy Terry said 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, remove hazardous substances and build a memorial on the site to honor the former residents and staff.