The non-profit Friends of Jesse Lee Home filed suit against the City of Seward in superior court, charging the home rule city with inverse condemnation, bad faith, and unfair dealing in its decision to demolish the historic home of the Alaska State flag.
The non-profit contends it holds title to the century-old Jesse Lee Home, an important cultural and historical building listed on the National Historic Register. Seward recently issued a contract to tear the landmark down.
The Friends of Jesse Lee Home are listed as the sole owners of the building with the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assessing Department, and the Seward city attorney advised the City Council at their Aug. 24 meeting that the city does not hold title to the building.
The lawsuit accuses the city of bullying Friends of the Jesse Lee Home, contractors, volunteers, and funders. They say the city threaten to arrest them for trespassing on property that they own – and that Seward police physically barred them from working to restore the building.
The lawsuit claims Seward officials misrepresented the restoration project and their intentions before the Alaska State Legislature in order to divert over a million dollars in funding originally slated for rehabilitating the structurally sound building to demolishing it.
Friends of the Jesse Lee Home are asking the court for a temporary restraining order, barring demolition work which is scheduled to begin Sept. 9
The historic site is where the Alaska flag was designed, sewn, and first flown by Alaska Natives – providing spark and hope for the Alaska Native rights movement. It is also the last standing building of Fort Raymond, protectors of Alaska’s supply chain during World War II.
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. It was also visited by Balto, the famous Alaska sled dog.
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.
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.
After the 1964 earthquake, the Methodist church deeded the Jesse Lee Home to Seward, which eventually sold the property to private owners. Multiple efforts to preserve the Jesse Lee Home have failed since it was abandoned the earthquake. Most recently the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home owned the structure. 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.
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.