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Preservation commission accepts ‘hail Mary Pass’ to save Kilby Hotel

by Jordan Green

jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

The Guilford County Historic Preservation Commission used parliamentary sleight of hand to stall action on request by the city of High Point to approve an order to demolish what one commissioner called “probably the best African-American landmark in High Point” on Thursday evening.

Faced with a choice between denying the city’s order and approving it with a delay of one to 365 days to give the owner time to stabilize the historic Kilby Hotel, the commission took a third path. It continued the matter through creative use of parliamentary procedure. They voted unanimously to go into recess without adjourning until Nov. 19, which Chairman John Buford noted happens to coincide with the commission’s next scheduled meeting.

County Attorney Mark Payne said later that the move was “unusual for a historic commission,” but that it was legal and that public boards often use the maneuver to avoid having to provide additional notice.

The decision came after appeals from County Commissioner Bruce Davis, who represents the section of High Point where the hotel is located; Hurley Derrickson, who helped establish the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro; and Benjamin Briggs, a High Point native and president of Preservation Greensboro.

Davis noted that the Kilby Hotel has been the focal point of the city’s plans to redevelop the historic Washington Street district, which functioned as the black downtown at one time. He also noted the significance of an African-American woman — the great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother of current owners Burnie McElrath and Myra Williams — building the hotel at the dawn of segregation.

“Even after growing up it was something that we could say, ‘This is something that an African-American woman built.’ We’re talking back in 1913 or somewhere thereabouts. This African- American woman with meager resources compared to what we have today was able to build a hotel. So I can point to this building as it stands now and tell a young person that, ‘This is what took place. This is what happened. If this could be done in 1913, then you can do the same thing.’ Now, if the Kilby goes up in dust and we put up a placard that says, ‘The Kilby used to stand here,’ then I have nothing to point to.’” Derrickson, who was one of the original incorporators of the nonprofit that launched the civil rights museum in Greensboro, pledged to help McElrath and Williams create a nonprofit, recruit board members and qualify for tax credits to attract investors to save the building. He said his friend Earl Jones — a co-founder of the civil rights museum, and former member of the NC House of Representatives and Greensboro City Council — has also pledged support. Both Davis and Derrickson said rallying the community around the hotel will be critical to its survival.

But it was Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro, who ultimately persuaded the historic preservation commission to hit the pause button.

Briggs said that he applied for a grant to pay for a mediator to try to broker an agreement between the owners and the city in what he characterized as a “hail Mary pass.” Only 24 hours prior to the meeting Briggs said he learned that the grant, for $1,500, had been approved by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Briggs said that Ben Speller, a member of the NC Preservation Commission who was heavily involved in the redevelopment of the Hayti Center in Durham, has agreed to act as mediator, adding that he hadn’t consulted with either the owners or the city to see if they would be interested.

“It’s daunting,” Briggs said. “One way that I deal with this is to not look backwards, but look forwards on what can be done with the building. Certainly a massive restoration is needed here — a major investment is needed.

“What we came up with was mediation,” Briggs continued.

“Mediation would introduce a third party to this discussion and dialogue that was not necessarily connected to the owners’ interest per se and not necessarily connected to the city’s interest per se, but would be a voice for the building — for historic preservation.”

Briggs said he hopes Speller would have a plan to move forward by Thanksgiving. Some members of the preservation commission said their decision to delay the decision was based on a desire to hear what Speller has to say about the prospects for coming up with a viable plan to save the hotel.

The decision comes in the wake of action by the city of High Point to block of a portion of Washington Street after the city received complaints that the building was shifting. The city discovered that the roof and third floor within the brick walls of the structure had collapsed. Assistant City Manager Randy McCaslin said after the meeting that city officials believe the Edwin Brown Jr., an inspections administrator, told commissioners the street was closed after the fire department received calls stating that the sound of glass breaking was heard. He submitted a fire incident report referencing a complaint on Oct. 13 from a caller standing outside the Kilby Hotel who stated that “the building is now creaking like it’s ready to collapse at any moment.”

“I feel like the general public, if they come into proximity of the building, they could be in significant danger,” said Darrell Long, a code enforcement supervisor.

Members of city staff who argued for the demolition order said Washington Street carries a high volume of foot traffic, enhanced by a bus stop in front of the historic hotel. Open Door Ministries, a homeless shelter, is located two blocks to the north, and city officials said they had to board the building up to prevent theft and injury.

McElrath acknowledged that patrons of nearby Becky’s & Mary’s soul food restaurant, which is located on Washington Street, have told her that they parked at a church and walked down the street to deal with the blockade.

CB2 Structural Engineers, a Winston- Salem engineering firm contracted by the city to assess the stability of the hotel recommended in December that the building either be shored up or demolished.

“The apparent collapse of portions of the roof structural diaphragm, and, the apparent collapse of portions of the third floor diaphragm appear to render this existing building structure as a life safety hazard and could collapse upon adjacent people and property,” wrote Charles L. Bowman, a professional engineer with the firm.

The Washington Street area is listed as a National Register District. The Kilby Hotel, along with an adjacent building, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Buford asked Burnette what argument the city would have for maintaining Washington Street as a historic district if the Kilby Hotel was torn down.

“That becomes a question,” Burnette acknowledged.

An overview of the Kilby Hotel from the city’s 2010 nomination of Washington Street for the National Register of Historic Places suggests a rich and colorful history.

“The Kilby Hotel was named after Nannie and John Kilby, who came to High Point to start their lives together in the 1890s,” the item reads. “The couple was an early investor in High Point real estate, as they built the hotel and recreation hall for blacks in High Point, which was then operated under Jim Crow laws. Shops were on the first floor, and the nightclub next to the hotel showcased jazz legends like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.”

Vice Chairman Jerry Nix said what makes the Kilby Hotel unique is that a black woman built and operated it in an era when that was uncommon. He said he recognizes that the building is a safety hazard, but said there are numerous examples of schools burning, and then being gutted and completely rehabbed.

“I really think if the public knew there was a chance something could be done to save it, they would get behind this,” he said.

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