SAVANNAH, GA – August 9, 2019 – More than eight months after a devastating fire damaged a historic house along the 200 block of West 37thStreet, the Historic SavannahFoundation is pleased toannounce the house will be saved, and that they are currently searching for a preservation-minded buyer to carry out the work of restoring the property.
“After months of careful study, inspection by an engineer, discussions with the MPC, and meticulous work by our partner Emergent Structures, HSF is happy to report the house has been deemed suitable for rehabilitation,” said Ryan Arvay, Historic Properties Coordinator with HSF. Arvay manages the organization’s Revolving Fund, HSF’s primary tool for saving endangered, vacant and blighted historic buildings for over 50 years.
The process of acquiring and then selling off a property is usually pretty routine and without fanfare. However, on occasion, a unique set of circumstances or an unexpected string of events will turn the standard operation into more of an adventure necessitating a special approach. That’s exactly the case with this property, located at 208 W. 37thSt. in downtown Savannah. The Free-Classic Queen Anne style housewas built in 1903 for Richard Webb Jr. and his wife Margaret. Mr. Webb was a shopkeeper for the Ocean Steamship Co. of Savannah.
HSF worked for almost a year and half to save 208 W. 37thSt., finally purchasing it in September 2018 after it cleared probate and an outstanding loan was resolved. Shortly after closing on the property, HSF began its standard routine of commissioning elevation drawings and hiring a local junk-removal company to clear out what could be described as a moderate to severe hoarder-type situation.
Several years prior to HSF’s involvement, the previous owner had died without a will or any immediate family members. Since the probate was never completed, the house was virtually tied up and unavailable, leaving it vacant for years. By the time Historic Savannah Foundation got involved, the house was in steep decline and had been cited by the city for repeat code violations. It was also a magnate for homeless and illicit activity under the cover of darkness.
“HSF rarely – if ever – purchases a property on the market, which we consider the low-hanging fruit. The market will take care of those homes,” Arvay said. “Instead, HSF climbs up the tree and shakes loose the hard to reach fruit at the top. That’s what we did here. We worked closely with the surviving heirs we could find to get the property back on a course toward preservation.”
However, a fire in the early morning hours of Nov. 10, 2018 threw a wrench in HSF’s carefully laid plans. An investigation by the Savannah Police and Fire departments indicated the fire was likely set by transients who accessed the underside of the house through a crawl space. The blaze raged up the back porch and through the attic, taking off the roof. The interior also suffered fire, smoke and water damage.
After the fire, HSF’s staff immediately fenced the property and began the difficult task of assessing the extent of the damage which, by all outward appearances, seemed catastrophic. After all the organization’s hard work to save the historic home, demolition seemed inevitable.
“HSF was heartbroken. It wasn’t just the loss of the historic building, but we put so much of ourselves into saving each property. So much time and effort go into every property we work on, whether we acquire it or not,” Arvay said. “So, my immediate instinct was to ask, ‘Can we save it … any portion of it?’ I went inside the house about a week after the fire and it was still dripping with water. Nearly all the contents were still inside, but now they were burnt and soggy. It was an absolute mess. The initial feedback we received from professionals whose advice we sought was that it was too badly damaged – a complete loss. And it was hard to disagree.”
Although the house’s fate seemed certain, Arvay and his colleagues thought they could still do right by the historic structure if they opted to take it down through deconstruction, as opposed to the much quicker method of total demolition. Emergent Structures, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that specializes in deconstruction, proposed taking the building apart, piece by piece, board by board, and salvaging what they could. Any usable building materials or fixtures could be preserved and repurposed instead of ending up in a landfill. The home could live on through “material preservation,” serving other restoration projects in need of hard-to-find historic fabric.
Demolishing the building would have meant flattening it in three days. Deconstruction, however, afforded HSF and Emergent much more time to examine the structure. Over the course of several months, Emergent slowly cleaned out all the garbage, removing the failing plaster and lathe, to reveal the interior structure of the house. Their meticulous, almost surgical-like work revealed that the Webb House was in far better condition than anyone had previously thought. After careful study and an inspection by licensed engineer Cody Tharpe of Tharpe engineering, it was determined that the house could indeed be saved.
“It’s a reminder of the quality inherent in these old houses and the extent to which they were over-built. Even the worst cases today can often be saved. Details from the pocket doors to the decorative exterior brackets survived the fire. Even the hardwood floors were nearly all salvageable. They were protected from the fire by all the junk that was covering them, insulating them from the flames,” Arvay said.
The home at 208 W. 37thSt. is now for sale, and HSF is searching for a visionary, preservation–minded buyer to complete the rehabilitation. The property is being sold as-is but includes all the architectural drawings created by HSF and Emergent Structures. An open house is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 14 from 4-7 p.m. The home also can be shown by appointment. All HSF properties are sold through a Request for Proposals (RFP) process, and anyone may submit a proposal. The application is online at: http://www.myhsf.org/available-properties/ The deadline for submitting a proposal is Friday, Sept. 6.The buyer will be selected based on the strength of their proposal and application, as determined by HSF’s nine-person Revolving Fund committee.
“We don’t just look at the bid amount, but we’re looking for the person who will be the best steward of the property all-around. We always give top consideration to a potential owner-occupied buyer, as well as someone who has some past experience with historic home rehab,” Arvay said.“We are under a time crunch now. Even though the house can be saved, it is still vulnerable. It has no roof and is exposed to the elements, so it is imperative that we find the right buyer so they can get a new roof on it as soon as possible.”
A great deal of the legwork on this project already has been conducted by HSF, working with the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission, Development Services, engineering firms and other entities that have provided assistance. In addition, HSF plans to submit a formal application for a Certificate of Appropriateness.
“We know this is going to be a challenging project, and we want to give the new buyer a head start. But even in its current condition, rehabbing the Webb House will yield a far superior home than anything that can be bought new,” Arvay said. “The home will not only retain its history and character, but it will have more square footage than you would otherwise be allowed by current code. Ultimately, we would not have been able to recreate this house. We are fortunate it can be saved.”
Historic Savannah Foundation’s Revolving Fund has become legendary in historic preservation circles as the field’s gold standard for saving aged yet important buildings that otherwise might be demolished. The Revolving Fund acquires properties through donation, options or outright purchase. A property qualifies for the Revolving Fund if it is vacant, endangered, has historical significance (listed in or eligible for the National Register), and is marketable for sale. The fund then markets the house locally and nationally to find a buyer who agrees to preserve and maintain the integrity of the structure.
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