Seward demolishes Jesse Lee Home and plans memorial in its place

A worn down wooden building
The Jesse Lee Home in Seward. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

The historic Jesse Lee Home is mostly demolished. Now, the Seward property will be rezoned as a park, following a unanimous vote by the Seward City Council last week. 

It’s the beginning of the end of a heated, years-long battle over the future of the abandoned historical building and the 2.66 acres on which it sits. Multiple attempts to keep it intact failed, and the city began demolition in November 2020.

The city plans on building a memorial on the property. To do so, it had to first rezone the land as a “park,” said Community Development Director Jackie Wilde.

“My goal is that, come June, we’ve got grass planted, we’ve got an area to park and we are building a memorial,” she said.

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It’s been a controversial process. For years, advocates fought hard to preserve the building. Others said its dilapidated exterior was a blight on the area.

From 1926 to 1964, the Jesse Lee Home was a residential school for children, many of whom were orphans or had parents with tuberculosis.

It’s where Benny Benson lived when he designed the Alaska state flag, as a seventh-grader.

The home was abandoned when the 1964 earthquake damaged it beyond use.

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The nonprofit Friends of the Jesse Lee Home took over the building more than a decade ago and worked with the state to turn it into a new school. But when the organization could not produce on its promises, the building was reverted back to city ownership.

The Friends’ final attempt to save the house was in September. The Kenai Court gave them a week to raise half a million dollars, but they couldn’t do so by the deadline.

That effort did delay demolition, however, as did inclement winter weather. While most of the building is now gone, there are still parts of the foundation, stairs and a concrete boiler room left. 

Wilde said the city hopes to have the demolition work done by the beginning of March. That will give them a sense of how much money they have left to build a memorial.

Dorene Lorenz, chair of the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home, said seeing the demolition was painful.

“What I did receive are a lot of really painful phone calls and hurtful letters from children of the Jesse Lee, expressing their anguish, their pain and their sadness with losing what to them was a sacred spot, a place of hope, a place of family and a place that was very meaningful to them,” she said.

Council member Sue McClure said she agrees with the sentiment that the home and its history must be memorialized. But like the other council members, she wants to see a new tribute.

“If we had lots of money, it would be wonderful to do some interactive, wonderful memorial, chronicling the history and experiences,” she said. “At this point, I’m not sure what we can do. But at least the rezone was the simple act of making it possible to do something.”

The city is currently using a $1.07 million grant from the state to demolish the building. It will use the funds leftover — an estimated $200,000 — to build whatever comes next. 

It’s not certain what that will be. Wilde said the city can apply for grants to build other parts of a park or community center.

“I just want to see it be an area that we’re honoring everything that happened there and also providing a really great usable space, regardless if it’s a community center,” she said. “Those are all things that are allowed in a park.”

She said they’ve saved some parts of the building, like its arch windows, to hopefully repurpose in a park. 

The city will solicit community feedback before coming up with a design for the new property. In a recent survey by the city, over half of 360 respondents agreed with turning the entire property into a park and memorial. Others said at least part of the property should be sold.

The city has to spend the funds appropriated by the state for a memorial by June 30, per the terms of the grant.