The home of the Alaska flag and one of the most historically significant structures in the state may soon be reduced to rubble if the Seward City Council approves plans to demolish the Jesse Lee Home.
Council members will consider the idea during a public hearing at their July 13 meeting.
Long-time resident and former council member Iris Darling is hoping to raise awareness and stop the city from doing away with the national landmark.
“I don’t think it’s just important for the City of Seward or the State of Alaska,” Darling said of the Jesse Lee Home, which is listed on the National Historic Register. “That home has national significance. I’m so tired of everybody getting rid of our history. We should be learning from our history.”
Darling, who is also a former Seward Historic Preservation Commissioner and a member of one of the city’s founding families, wrote an open letter urging residents to step up and save the building.
“Say goodbye to the home of the Alaska State Flag, where it was designed, sewn, and first flown by Alaska Natives – providing spark and hope for the Alaska Native rights movement,” Darling wrote. She added that the home was also the last standing building of Fort Raymond, protectors of Alaska’s supply chain in WWII.
“Built by the Methodist Women to house children displaced by epidemics, the Jesse Lee Home served an important role in developing the cure for tuberculosis,” Darling noted. It was also visited by the famous sled dog Balto.
Despite the home’s rich history, the city council has directed the administration to prepare a resolution to destroy it.
The building has been a fixture in Seward since the 1920s serving as a safe haven for Alaska Native children whose parents died after the Spanish flue wiped out entire Alaskan Native coastal villages. Founded in Unalaska, the children’s home moved to Seward in 1926.
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For nearly 40 years the home housed and educated around 120 children at any given time. Some were not orphans but lived in the home because their parents were in Tuberculosis sanitariums. Most children came from the Aleutian Islands or the Seward Peninsula but youth from all races and regions were represented.
Benny Benson, a seventh grade Alaska Native child from the village of Chignik designed the Alaska State Flag while living at the Jesse Lee Home. His flag of eight stars on a field of blue beat out more than 700 other designs around the state. On July 9, 1927, the Alaska flag was raised for the first time at the Jesse Lee Home. That day is still commemorated as Alaska Flag Day. Other notable alumni are Ephraim Kalmakoff who won the 1928 Mount Marathon Race in Seward. He is still the youngest champion to win the race. Another student, Peter Gordon from Unga Island went on to found Alaska Methodist University in Anchorage, now Alaska Pacific University. Gordon was the school’s first president.
“History is important. If we don’t know what our forefathers did, we won’t know how to improve it.”
After the 1964 earthquake, the Methodist church deeded the Jesse Lee Home to Seward, which eventually sold the property to private owners. Today, after being abandoned for nearly 40 years, the property is again owned by the city.
Darling believes Seward has a duty to help preserve the heritage of the Jesse Lee Home for future generations.
“My husband’s grandfather is one of the founding members of this town,” she said. “History is important. If we don’t know what our forefathers did, we won’t know how to improve it.”
Darling said she hopes the city can marshal the political will to save the home.
“It’s just been home to so many people over the years. It is a beautiful building, but everything has gotten so political over here,” she said. “They need to kick politics out and try to save this monument.”
The building needs renovation and restoration and some state money has been set aside for this purpose. The city estimates that it will cost about $25 million to repair the roof, clean the building and abate the asbestos.
“In their efforts to preserve the building, the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home ironically budgeted the same amount to completely restore the Jesse Lee Home,” Darling wrote in her letter to residents.
“People come to Seward because it is an old Alaskan town and we’ve got to save every monument we’ve got,” Darling told the Watchman. “We’ve got to turn this town back around and appreciate history.”
- The July 13 Seward City Council meeting will be held virtually and telephonically. It begins at 7 p.m.
- Emailed comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 2 p.m. on Monday, July 13. Emails should indicate whether you want the comments read aloud at the meeting. For more information, call the clerk at 224- 4045. Those who wish to be called on the telephone to provide your comments should send an email request to email@example.com along with a contact phone number. This request must be sent no later than 2 p.m. on July 13. All comments are limited to three minutes.
- While there will be no in-person comments for the meeting, it can be viewed live on YouTube at the “City of Seward Alaska” channel. The meeting will also be on the radio (97.1 FM) and television (GCI Cable Channel 9).
- Click here to call or email members of the Seward City Council.