Seward's Historic Jesse Lee Home, Hurt By Time And Vandals, May Be Razed

Posted: Monday, April 23, 2001

SEWARD (AP) -- Billy Blackjack Johnson wasn't 2 years old when his mother, a Nome woman stricken with tuberculosis, placed him in the Jesse Lee Home.

It was 1926, and the towering, three-story orphanage on a hillside overlooking Seward had just opened. Already, children were teeming within its tan, stuccoed walls. Most of them were Alaska Natives from villages racked by waves of epidemics such as TB and influenza.

More than 100 youngsters packed its open dorm rooms, scrambling out of bed when the 7 a.m. breakfast bell rang, ushered by harried young matrons who were outnumbered 10 to 1.

''They gave us a home, they gave us food, they gave us a warm bed, and they taught us religion, and we should never forget that,'' said Johnson, 77.

But how the Jesse Lee Home will be remembered has been the subject of speculation since it closed in 1965. Would-be developers have come and gone while the home -- once an imposing and attractive Tudor-style mansion -- molders.

Recently, the orphanage where John ''Benny'' Benson Jr. designed the Alaska flag and where it was first raised in 1927 has become the subject of legislation making its way through the House.

Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, who visited the school in its latter days, has introduced House Bill 96, asking the state Division of Parks to figure out how the state might develop and manage the property. The bill calls for spending $65,000 for an architect to analyze the abandoned orphanage.

Two of the three buildings still stand: the boys' dorm known as Jewel Guard Hall and a 1936 dining hall and heating plant dubbed the Balto Building, after the lead dog from the famous 1926 serum run to Nome.

A statue of Balto once adorned a monument in front of the building but long ago disappeared.

The mansion, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, makes a striking first impression. But closer inspection reveals damage from age, abuse and neglect.

The violent 1964 Good Friday earthquake may be most responsible for the home's fate. The Methodist Church, which established Jesse Lee in 1925, abandoned it the year after it was damaged by the quake. It's been empty since.

In the early 1970s, the hallways and dorm rooms were stripped of everything of value -- windows, bathroom fixtures -- leaving nothing but exposed wooden beams.

Tim Sczawinski, a member of Seward's historic preservation commission, wandered through its hallways recently, pointing out dorm rooms, house-parent apartments, the curving ceiling of the scissor-trussed chapel and an airy gymnasium that rises to the attic rafters.

''I'd like to see part of it restored,'' he said. ''I've seen 8,000-year-old Egyptian boats hauled back to the United States for preservation, and they were in a lot worse shape than this place.''

City officials say Seward doesn't have the money to address those questions, even though circumstances are forcing the city's hand.

The city is wrapping up foreclosure on the property after the home's former owner failed to make utility payments. The city council recently approved spending $50,000 to board up windows and erect a fence to keep people out.

''The private sector has given up on its ability to salvage the place; now it has become a public issue,'' said city manager Scott Janke.

Janke said the statewide historic significance of the Jesse Lee Home begs for state oversight.

Johnson remembers Benny Benson as a kind, older boy who looked out for him. He has spent the last decade working to preserve the old buildings where he grew up.

He wrote a 1991 book about his childhood at the Jesse Lee Home, ''Shelter From the Storm,'' and tried to assemble a nonprofit group to pay for the orphanage's restoration. He said he has stacks of historic photos of the facility and its staff and still is willing to help out.

''I would volunteer my help at no cost to restore it,'' he said via telephone from his home in rural North Carolina. ''I would give my guidance and advice anytime they want me to come up there.''

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