Business, City of Seward, History

Jesse Lee prime candidate for historic renovation and LEEDs certification

Historic Jesse Lee Home orphanage building. Heidi Zemach photo.
Historic Jesse Lee Home orphanage building. Heidi Zemach photo.

Heidi Zemach for Seward City News –

The 86-year old Jesse Lee Orphanage, which sits on prime City land above Seward and has been abandoned and vandalized since the ’64 earthquake, would be a great candidate for National Historic Building designation and LEEDS energy certification, said Barbara Campagna, an architect from BAC/A&P (Architecture and Planning). It’s an architecture and planning firm based in Buffalo NY, with nationally-recognized expertise in the renovation of many spectacular old historic and green buildings. The old orphanage was home to Benny Benson as a child, whose North Star and Big Dipper design was chosen to become the Alaska State Flag.  Friends of Jesse Lee Home(FJLH), a nonprofit, is hoping to preserve it, its history, and create an innovative leadership and boarding school for Native Alaska youth there.

Campagna visited the old orphanage in Seward last week, accompanied by Houston-based engineers Marcus Eliason and Gordon Sheppherd, who will help the group determine how best to renovate the building so it can last for another century.

Friends of Jesse Lee National Historic and green building consultant Barbara Campagna.
Friends of Jesse Lee National Historic and green building consultant Barbara Campagna.

Campagna’s credentials include the restoration, renovation, and oversight of such national historic buildings projects as the Federal Reserve Bank of NY; the Eugene O’ Neill Theater, NY; Belvedere Castle in Central Park, NY; Cliveden, in Philadelphia, PA; Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, OR, and crumbling hospital buildings on Ellis Island.

Last Monday, the City of Seward agreed to transfer ownership of the land to FJLH, so the project of removing asbestos and related restoration work can begin in the near future.

An amendment suggested by Historic Preservation Committee member John French would have inserted protective language into the transfer assuring that the group would follow all state historic preservation guidelines. The council did not take the amendment up for discussion, and therefore was not included in the land transfer. But FJLH’s president Dorene Lorenz said group would make every effort to do so, and had been working closely with the Alaska Historic Commission office, and with Campagna.

Tuesday, the afternoon after the transfer was approved, consultant Campagna, and the two engineers arrived in Seward to don hard hats and explore the Jesse Lee site for the first time. That evening they attended a social gathering at FJLH office to which members of the Seward Historic Preservation Committee and local media were invited.

During an interview with SCN ,Campagna had no reservations about the potential for successfully renovating the Jesse Lee Home.

“I’m working on a building now, and on the board of a building that’s very similar in process in Buffalo, New York. It’s an old psychiatric insane asylum. It’s a national historic landmark, and although it’s a stone building, not a wood frame building, it’s sort of similar. The state’s been giving us the money and we have our own nonprofit that we set up. It’s been abandoned for years as well, and everybody thought it should be torn down. It’s being turned into a boutique hotel and a conference center and it just engenders so much excitement now in the community.”

Campagna said she understands how residents who have witnessed the building’s slow deterioration, and decades of abandonment may have a difficult time believing that it should, or could be restored. But assures them it can.

This old piano used to be played by possibly generations of children who lived in the old Jesse Lee Home. Photos of the students sit atop it at the Balto School office in Seward. Heidi Zemach photo.
This piano used to be played by children who lived in the old Jesse Lee Home. Photos of the students sit atop it at the Balto School office in Seward. Heidi Zemach photo.










“I worked for 30 years on such buildings like this, but this is actually very fortunate because the remaining structure is in sound shape, it’s really good solid wood. They’ve done all the right things in stabilizing areas since 2011. The site is accessible, more or less. And they have images of what was there before—reconstructing the doors and windows for example that are missing, and reconstructing the roof, because the roof is basically gone— will be completely possible because the images are there, and there are lots of people who know how to do that.”

Her team had specifically been brought into the project to help its design team figure out how to add green features that would make the building more sustainable in the long run, she said. They would ultimately help with the building’s expenses because greater efficiency would lower fuel costs.

“And so some of the things we’re looking at is adding renewable energy like solar and wind turbines,” Campagna said. The group planned to get a tour of the Alaska Sea Life Center’s new ocean-heat technology the next day, and to meet with the city electric department to talk about the other wind turbines in town and about how they’ve been working, she said.

There is actually only one wind turbine operating in the city currently, and it’s a demonstration model turbine that belongs to AVTEC, and is used primarily as a teaching tool. Solar panels are slowly gaining traction, but their use also has been limited locally.

“So what we need to do is — how to make this building super-efficient in terms as energy and resource use, but at the same time not impact the historic significance. And so far we haven’t come across any things we’re recommending that would possibly damage their chances of getting the (federal historic) tax credit. A lot of historic buildings on the national register also have gotten LEED certification, which is what they’re going for.

Campagna is confident that the project can get LEED certification. An initial report showed that with the current project and budget, they could easily qualify for a LEED certification at the Silver (or entry) level, she said. It depends on what level of certification they hope to reach, which is what her group will be helping them determine. With more work, they could get LEED Gold, and with even more funding, the highest level-LEED Platinum.

“They really want this to be a model project of historic preservation and green building,” she said.

The greatest hurdle groups typically have in obtaining federal rehabilitation tax credits for historic buildings is following all of the requirements of what will be a very rigorous process, she said. It includes approval from the state certification office and the National Park Service, and then following through by communicating their ideas, and soliciting the agency’s advice along the way, which, she believes FJLH has already been doing. “And of course finding the appropriate funding. But they’re all pretty dynamic and they’re also pretty excited that they can secure the additional funding,” she concluded.

Seward Historic Preservation members who attended Tuesday evening included Wolfgang Kurtz, who had been appointed the night before, and Wadeen Hepworth, another recently-appointed board member, who did not want to comment publicly on a controversial project she’s so new to.

“It appears to me that they’re trying to put together a good team. Certainly the people we met today bring a lot of expertise in terms of is it allowable or not allowable in terms of historical reconstruction,” said John French, one of the longer-term commission members. French still has concerns about the group’s transparency.

“Since I’ve been on the commission, this is the first meeting that they have formally invited the commission to attend, which I think is six years now,” he noted.


One Comment

  1. The fate of the JLH is of great interest to me, but so is its history. A couple of notes on the above: What’s left of the boys’ building is 89 years old, not 86 (despite the date on the plaque that stood on the site last time I visited, the home was built in 1925; the first residents, from Unalaska and Nome, arrived in the fall of that year). And Benny Benson’s design for Alaska’s flag is the big dipper and north star (“eight stars of gold on a field of blue …”) rather than the northern lights — that surely was a momentary lapse. As to the future: Best wishes from a perennially homesick “Seward kid” to all concerned; there do seem to be some concerns.