Alaska editorial: State should restore the Jesse Lee Home

Posted: Monday, July 02, 2007

The Jesse Lee Home in Seward needs a lot more help than this year's Legislature gave it. Not that lawmakers were being cheapskates. The $1 million appropriation, awaiting Gov. Sarah Palin's approval in the capital budget, is plenty welcome. It will help stabilize the hollowed-out historic structure and stave off further ruin. But upwards of $11 million more will be needed to restore the former orphanage to something resembling its original stature.

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That's an ambitious goal, but it's a challenge Alaskans from across the state should embrace. The Jesse Lee Home occupies a special place in Alaska history: It is the birthplace of Alaska's flag. Thirteen-year-old Benny Benson lived at Jesse Lee when he entered a schoolchildren's contest to design a territorial flag in 1927. His design won, and the first place it flew as Alaska's official flag was the Jesse Lee Home.

Beyond the Benson connection, the Jesse Lee Home has a special meaning to Alaska Natives. Early in the 20th century, epidemics ravaged many Native areas and left behind many orphans. The Jesse Lee Home, which moved from Unalaska to Seward in 1925, sheltered and raised many of the youngsters left behind.

The building was a stately presence visible to those approaching Seward by sea. It's on the National Register of Historic Places, and for good reason. Alaska just doesn't have many buildings that date from the early 20th century, let alone one with the former grandeur and historical significance of the Jesse Lee Home. What a pity it would have been if the Seward City Council had gotten its way in 1968. Unable to find a buyer after three years of trying, the council voted to burn the home down.

A group called Friends of the Jesse Lee Home has been working to save the building, now owned by the City of Seward. A state study found that the building is still structurally sound, despite 40-plus years of weathering.

The Friends realize the old home needs a modern use to justify the restoration expense and sustain the building after it's restored. They hope it will become a charter school that offers leadership academy training, hosting students from around the state for intensive sessions.

Stage one of the rescue plan - stabilizing the home against the elements - will cost another $2 million beyond what the Legislature appropriated. So far, other key supporters include the City of Seward, Cook Inlet Region Inc., Chugach Alaska Corp. and the Rasmuson Foundation.

You don't have to be a financial mogul to help save the Jesse Lee Home. You can make a donation through the Alaska Community Foundation here in Anchorage.

As former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Arliss Sturgulewski says in a fundraising brochure, "Working together as Alaskans, we have an opportunity to create a place where our young people can share their cultures, learn leadership skills and prepare to forge our state's future."

It's an exciting opportunity that deserves Alaskans' strong support.

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