Seward City Council will hear resolution to demolish home of the Alaska Flag
The name Benny Benson is recognized throughout the state as the name of the Alaska Native boy who won a design contest that became the image of the Alaska State Flag.
The place where he designed that flag — the Jesse Lee Home — is somewhat less ubiquitous and could be demolished if a resolution before the Seward City Council passes on July 13.
At the last council meeting on June 22, City Manager Scott Meszaros was directed by the council to draft a resolution recommending demolition of the home.
“This council just really needs to determine if we are going to follow the engineer’s recommendation,” Meszaros said at the meeting. “Which is to do demo with the abatement funds.”
In R&M Consultants’ evaluation of the home, it said abatement would be more expensive if the building was to be rehabilitated whereas demolishing and rebuilding the structure would cost half as much as refurbishing existing structures.
The possible demolition would use a Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Grant worth over $1 million to remove hazardous materials, demolish the site and construct “a memorial at the site” the resolution states.
Several organizations involved in historical preservation have criticized the council for considering a demolition including the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home. The organization has spent years working to secure funds for the restoration of the home, but as political administrations changed, plans for the home changed too, Chairman Dorene Lorenz said.
“I would think the City of Seward has to be really tone-deaf that they choose this particular time to decide to destroy a cultural landmark that’s been nationally recognized as being an important part of Alaskan history, in addition to housing and providing a home for Alaska Native children who were displaced during the last epidemic that Alaska experienced,” Lorenz said.
Seward resident Cheryl Seese said the issue is split 50/50 between residents who want the home to be restored and those who wish to see the building demolished. That’s why she wishes the city would allow residents to vote for what they want to happen to the home.
“It’s 50/50 here in town... and they’re passionate — equally passionate — on both sides,” Seese said.
Seese also chairs the Seward Historic Preservation Commission which sent the council a statement asking for them to “preserve as much of the Jesse Lee Home as possible.” Seese noted that the building is currently unsafe, but she says the Commission and the city have different opinions on how to handle the asbestos.
“Where we disagree is we don’t believe you have to demolish the entire thing to take care of the asbestos,” Seese said.
Multiple engineering companies have evaluated the building, which hasn’t been in use since it was damaged in the 1964 earthquake. At the council meeting, Community Development-Planner Jackie Wilde said it would cost around 24 million to abate and repair the structure, including replacing the roof and cleaning out hazardous materials.
“I know this is a really touchy subject and I am fully aware of the significance of Jesse Lee to everyone,” Wilde said at the council meeting. “I just think that I don’t want to see the city be here in another 10 years in the same situation..”
The Alaska Association for Historic Preservation put the Jesse Lee Home on its list of Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties for 2020.
“The best thing is to be able to retain the entire building as it was — not taking out walls — or trying to keep it as close to the original building as possible,” Trish Neal, president of the association, said. “That’s the ideal.”
While the home is most famous for being the home of the Alaska State Flag, Lorenz said there’s more to its history including its role in World War II, medical developments made there during the tuberculosis outbreak and a visit from Balto.
There had once been hopes to repair the building into a charter school, which the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home commissioned engineers to evaluate. A recent report from Schneider Structural Engineers said the home has further deteriorated since previous evaluations were made.
“However, additional structural damage has occurred and will continue to occur since the previous evaluations, causing exacerbation to the already identified structural deficiencies and causing new unidentified structural damage,” the report said.
There will be a period for public testimony at the Seward City Council meeting. People can testify in-person, by calling in or by submitting written testimony by 2 p.m. on July 13.