Jesse Lee Home still standing after scheduled demolition

Jesse Lee Home on a sunny fall day in September, 2020. The city council voted to tear it down in July.
Jesse Lee Home on a sunny fall day in September, 2020. The city council voted to tear it down in July.(Taylor Clark)
Published: Sep. 11, 2020 at 8:20 PM AKDT
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SEWARD, Alaska (KTUU) - The city of Seward and its residents have been trying to figure out what to do with the historic Jesse Lee Home for decades. After one group filed a restraining order against the city, it remains there despite the unanimous decision by the city council to tear it down in July.

It’s not news that the building has certainly seen better days. Millions of dollars of state and private funding have gone into the building, yet its condition appears to have worsened.

Margaret Anderson said she’s been living in Seward all her life. She said went to school with some of the children who lived there when she was just a girl. Now, she said she would love to see it gone for the betterment of the city.

“I would describe it as a disaster,” she said. “It’s an attractive nuisance. It’s been vandalized. One of the buildings was burnt because somebody started a fire. I mean, even in broad daylight you’ll see people climbing the fence trying to get inside.”

Not living in town quite as long, Iris Darling moved to Seward in 1989. She is on the other side of the issue and not only thinks the buildings deserve to be saved, but if it does, it could drive the city forward.

“I’ve had the opportunity of being inside. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen," she said. “In fact, one time I had John McCain here in my store and they wanted to know about the Jesse Lee Home.”

City records and word around town show that the building has changed hands several times over the years, with ownership bouncing back to Seward in most cases. The most recent owner is the group that has been fighting for years to not only save the building but to restore it: Friends of the Jesse Lee Home.

In late 2014, Friends bought the deed to the building from the city of Seward through a quitclaim that was signed by them and the city. The total price they paid was one single U.S. dollar, according to the records.

However, that came with millions of dollars worth of responsibility in the form of renovations that the court required Friends to do to keep ownership. The quitclaim shows they were required to get all the hazardous materials out of the building and connect it to sewer and water. They were given five years to accomplish this.

Jackie Wilde, Seward Community Development director, said that the deadline passed and in the first week of September 2019, the city assumed ownership and they went through with inspectors. They concluded that it wasn’t safe for anyone to even be inside the building. They closed the gates and changed the locks.

Fast forward to January 2020, Wilde said the city got access to a little over $1 million in state funding to tear down the building.

How much work was actually done on the building is impossible to tell from outside of the fenced-in perimeter. Members of Friends at Cobble Company in town did show Alaska’s News Source recent photos of the inside that appear to show some restoration done so parts of the framework.

Images from Cobble Company showing what looks like restoration work done on framing in Jesse Lee Home.
Images from Cobble Company showing what looks like restoration work done on framing in Jesse Lee Home.(Cobble Company)

Wilde said the city regularly asked for progress reports from Friends that weren’t answered. She said she’s never seen documentation of work being done.

Meanwhile, the chair of Friends, Dorene Lorenz, said they regularly asked in city council meetings to set up meetings to discuss the work they were doing, which she said were also unheard.

Wilde said the city had the private contractor on-site to start the abatement and demo work on Aug. 31, 2020. They didn’t get very far because of the quitclaim.

Even though Friends had the quitclaim deed for the last five years, Wilde said it only became an obstruction in tearing the building down until after they started.

She said on Sept. 3, Friends went to the judge with the deed and filed a restraining order on the city to leave the Jesse Lee Home. That also came with conditions.

Court records show that all the workers and equipment came from outside of Seward, so it cost big money for them to stop.

"It’s a little over $16,000, almost $17,000 in labor costs and roughly $12,000 for the equipment that’s sitting on-site,” Wilde said.

The judge had to either uphold the restraining order and leave contractors unable to work and racking up bills, or lift it and allow them to tear down the historical building.

The ruling was that tearing it down would cause “irreparable harm,” but the judge also didn’t want thousands of dollars in damages to go onto the contractor and city. So it was decided that Friends had to give up $72,000 by 4:30 in the afternoon of Sept. 9.

Friends shattered that goal with the help of big donors like the Rasmusson Foundation, the Chugach Native Corporation, the Alaska Native Heritage Center and a some private donors, including former residents.

Now, demolition or restoration is on hold. There is no court date set as of Friday evening.

On both sides, the people fighting to either tear down the building or restore it to its former glory expressed that this has become a polarized issue — some went as far as to say they feel some resentment for the other side.

Part of Seward’s request for proposal when seeking a contractor was to set aside some money to salvage anything they could, to try and build some sort of memorial to the site, according to Wilde. That idea doesn’t sit well with Darling.

“I don’t feel a compromise is in order here,” Darling said. “They talked about doing a monument. Monuments seem to get lost. The structure itself is so beautiful, I think it deserves to be saved.”

No one has lived in the Jesse Lee Home since the 1964 earthquake. As much as Darling appreciates the building and its historical value, she never saw it with people inside. She’s also not related to any former residents.

However, Michael Johnson’s father did. Johnson said his dad was roommates with the most famous person to have lived at the home, Benny Benson.

Benson designed the Alaska state flag at just 13 years old in 1927. A lot of the historical recognition for the home comes from his legacy there.

Johnson said his father left the home and started a career in the military in WWII. He then went on to live a life of public service as a mailman and public works employee before becoming very involved with the Alaska Native Settlement Act.

His work included trying to save the Jesse Lee Home according to Johnson. With so many Alaska Natives passing through its hallways, many going on to find success, Johnson continues that fight.

“If they knock down the building, at least all of it, you might as well throw the Alaska flag in with it. Because you’re destroying history,” he said.

At the same time, Anderson said she knows plenty of the people she grew up with who lived there remember it as the place they went when their parents couldn’t take care of them anymore. She thinks there’s plenty of former residents who would be at ease to see it go.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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