By CIRI Historian Alexandra
Two forlorn-looking, abandoned buildings sitting on a breath-taking
2.5-acre site overlooking Seward and Resurrection Bay appear to
contain answers to questions about Alaska’s past. The buildings
are all that remain of the former Jesse Lee Home where Alaska’s
flag was designed. If they are allowed to continue their ever-quickening
deterioration, the answers may go from being elusive to lost.
A number of people are working to find ways to stabilize and eventually
renovate and even make use of the buildings in the future, but it
may come down to a question of finding state support in a climate
of budget cutting.
The Jesse Lee Home, begun by the Methodist Church, had its beginnings
as an orphanage in Unalaska in 1890. In 1925, the home was moved
to Seward, where it eventually grew to several buildings on a 100-acre
site. The home offered housing, education, and health care to resident
children until 1964 when it sustained severe damage in the Good
Friday Earthquake. Goode Hall, one of the original dormitories,
was demolished after the earthquake due to extensive damage.
Many Alaska Native children lived in the home, often sent there
as a result of the ravages of epidemics of influenza and tuberculosis
that hit villages for years throughout Alaska. Among its more famous
residents were Benny Benson, designer of Alaska’s flag; Peter
Gordon Gould, founder of Alaska Methodist University; and Simeon
Oliver, pianist, composer, and writer.
Former resident and CIRI shareholder James Lewis Simpson is among
those urging state support and private fund-raising for funds to
implement stabilization and renovation alternatives suggested in
a recently completed state-funded $65,000 study. The 79-year-old
said he arrived at the home in 1929 when he was four years old.
He remained there until he graduated from high school at age 17.
Simpson, who is Ahtna Athabascan, spent his earliest years in Chickaloon,
his mother’s home. When his family ran into difficulties and
was not able to care for him, he was put on the train in Anchorage
and sent to the home in Seward. He doesn’t recall being frightened
when he arrived late in the day, but rather very amazed and curious
about his new surroundings. He said he amazed his caregivers to
nearly the same degree when he told them he needed to say his prayers
before getting into bed.
Simpson declines to analyze the type of care he got at the home,
but simply suggests that his service in World War II, followed by
the attainment of a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate
and eventually master’s and doctorate degrees speak for themselves.
After a successful teaching career in Alaska, he and his wife retired
He has met with Seward community leaders, as well as others involved
in the study of the site and encouraged them to proceed as soon
as possible with saving the site. Like many others, Simpson feels
that the site deserves its listing on the National Register of Historic
Places, but its true significance is its statewide importance in
Alaska, especially as the location of where the state’s flag
Greg Frosberg, architect for ECI/Hyer Architects, Inc., the firm
retained for the state-sponsored study, said the remaining structures
have been neglected for years and that they already have deteriorated
to a significant degree. He said it was impossible to predict when
the buildings may decay to the point where it will be impossible
to save them, but he said he hopes that funds can be found soon
to at least stop water leaks and otherwise stabilize the structures.
Seward City Planner Malcolm Brown said the city, which owns the
property as a result of a foreclosure, is working closely with the
Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources to seek legislative approval for
funding. He estimated that the two structures and the covered arcade
of about 60 feet connecting them comprise a total over 24,000 square
feet. Until new funding can be found, Brown said, the city is not
financially able to undertake further efforts to save the buildings.
Brown said the city is open to any reasonable suggestions about
long-term use of the property, such as elderly housing, a boarding
home for children or other uses with the condition that the historical
significance of the property be maintained and that the public have
access to it. But Brown said he is aware of the need for urgency.
“The clock is really ticking,” he said.