Damaged College Hill home gets a second chance
The most dilapidated house in College Hill is about to become the crown jewel of the neighborhood.
Located at 919 Spring Garden Street near UNCG, the historic home dates back to 1907. The house is adjacent to College Place United Methodist Church, and the church acquired the property in 1999 for the purpose of renting the rooms out as apartments.
In June 2011 a fire engulfed a large portion of the structure, leaving the home uninhabitable with a charred and gaping hole on the second floor. Since that time the home had been vacant – left vulnerable to the natural elements and squatters.
Jason Harvey, the Pastor at College Place United Methodist Church, was there at the scene of the fire right after he came to the congregation.
“It was my first visit with the church ever, that day in June 2011 when the house was on fire,” said Harvey. “Heralded by fire trucks was not my desired introduction to the congregation.”
Everyone made it out of the house safely, but the church took a major financial hit with the incident, and congregation leaders were left with the difficult decision of what to do with the remains of the historic home.
“The gap between what our insurance proceeds were and the cost of the required upgrades for fire sprinklers and building code changes, created a gap between our financial resources and the repair cost,” said Harvey.
“Since the building was deemed condemned by the authorities the initial thoughts to tear down the house was seen as the safest thing to do.”
A one-year minimum hold was put on the demolition plans due to the property’s designation as an historic structure. It was during this period that Preservation Greensboro stepped in to work with the church to find a way to try to save the century-old home.
According to Preservation Greensboro President Benjamin Briggs, the home is an “excellent example of an American Foursquare with Colonial Revival features.” The home is also one of the most visible structures in the neighborhood, located on a large corner lot where UNCG’s campus ends and the neighborhood begins.
Marsh Prause joined the cause as the representing attorney for Preservation Greensboro’s efforts to save the house. According to Prause, the home anchors the neighborhood as an architectural structure.
“It’s very prominent,” said Prause. “It has a huge front porch.”
Prause said the cost of tearing the structure down was estimated at $25,000 while the value of the lot itself is around $40,000. Prause argued that if the church were to tear down the property that they would only net about $15,000 to compensate for their loss.
The church briefly considered the benefits of turning the lot into much needed additional parking spaces for the congregation. Church leaders evaluated the budgets and decided that they needed more money for the home than the $15,000 offered by Preservation Greensboro.
It was only at what Prause described as “the eleventh hour” that the neighborhood association for College Hill offered a potential solution. The association’s president, James Keith, explained that residents in College Hill pay a small additional property tax that goes into a Municipal Service District (MSD) fund. Funds in an MSD account can be used to build, maintain, and improve features of the neighborhood, “above and beyond what a city would pay for in a normal neighborhood,” according to Keith.
In this case, the association decided that they wanted to use the MSD funds to try and restore the home at 919 Spring Garden, and offered $50,000 to help ease the sale.
“We decided with the prominence of this property – it’s a hugely obvious piece of land – we wanted to do something,” said Keith. “The problem was trying to find someone who would be willing to swallow the pill of renovating it.”
Prause said that Preservation Greensboro met with about five different interested parties, but that the organization tends to be very selective for these types of sales. They are looking for potential owners with a genuine desire to preserve the historic character of the structures.
Susan and Judge Richard W. Stone seemed like a good match for the property after Prause met with the couple and discovered that Judge Stone had actually grown up in the College Hill neighborhood. The couple wanted a permanent residence for their family and had the vision needed to see past all the devastation.
“As I walked through the house with him I could tell he wasn’t seeing the smoke and fire damage,” said Prause. “He was seeing the potential.”
With all the interested buyers committed, the church was willing to sell the property in October 2013.
“The period was not easy in our congregational life, but with meetings, conversations and prayer we were able to move through the time of indecision for us,” said Harvey.
The College Hill Neighborhood Association funds could not legally be released directly to Preservation Greensboro, so the property had to be sold to the City of Greensboro for a brief period of time in order to make the $50,000 transaction. Once the property was sold back to Preservation Greensboro, the Stones could then purchase the estate and begin restoration.
The challenge then became restoring a house that has been damaged in a fire and left vacant for over two years.
The home is being restored by A408 Studios and General Contractor Steve Johnson said that they are discovering unforeseen elements of the home as they peel back the layers of renovations from the last 100 years.
“We’re discovering things about the house that we couldn’t have known before,” said Johnson.
Johnson said that there was probably more damage done to the house during the period when it was left vacant than from the initial fire. Crews have had to remove all of the dry wall due to water damage and almost all of the electrical systems have been compromised.
Even with the damage, the bones of the house have impressed Johnson. The hard wood used to build the frame was most likely cut from very old and very strong trees that have protected the house from insects and other elements.
“The old framing of that house is just really high quality,” said Johnson.
Johnson and his crews are working to finish as much of the renovation as possible before the NC historic tax credits end this December. He is hopeful that the bulk of the work will be completed by the end of the year, but expects that construction will continue into February of 2015.
Pastor Harvey said that he and his congregation are excited to welcome the Stones to the neighborhood.
“As is the case with any difficult experience, it will be good to see something good come after the bad,” said Harvey. “In this case the fire.”
Johnson is hopeful that the house will continue to be a shining example of historic preservation for decades to come.
“I think it’s important to our history to save these homes,” said Johnson. “I hope to look back at this house in 30-40 years from now when it’s time for another renovation and hear that the crews working on it are uncovering the work I’m doing now, and that they will think I did a good job.” !