Recent ruckus over razed historic houses

Published 4:29 pm Wednesday, April 12, 2023

By Margaret Fort

The recent razing of three historic homes has people on both sides of the issue expressing their thoughts on the matter on social media. 

The Wright-Kilgore house owned by Butler County, the Phelps house owned by the City of Greenville, and the Whittington house, which was privately owned, were all recently torn down.

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A public outcry  began in a March 25 post on social media, with one side expressing  sadness over losing historical houses and local history and questioning what could be done to preserve such homes, while others responded by praising local officials for the improvements. 

Both sides voiced seemingly reasonable and valid concerns and supporters of the demolition said the  were beyond salvation, arguing that irreparable abandoned houses legitimately need to be razed due to liability, danger, possible vagrancy, and unsightliness. 

But, according to the Greenville Area Arts Council co-founder Bobbie Gamble the city’s historic buildings embody its history and need to be preserved for future generations, 

“It is important to preserve Greenville’s historic houses because they are our history,” Gamble said “They show us, in the way they were designed, how we lived before air conditioning, for example.” 

Local expert in preservation, builder Galahad Smith, said preserving historic buildings can come with seemingly insurmountable challenges. 

“Preserving historic structures in Greenville can be very difficult, [with] many challenges to overcome,” Smith said. “‘Higher labor and material costs [for] renovations require specialized labor or the original material does not exist.” 

Smith also said the difficulty in compliance with modern codes, makes restoration even that more difficult. 

“The 2015 IBC (International Building Code) recently adopted by Greenville addresses historic buildings in much more detail and is more lenient to people attempting to preserve historic structures.There are currently very few politicians and officials who care about the historical significance of our beautiful buildings.” 

Smith recommends residents who want to preserve historic buildings cooperate collectively and establish a historical commission. These razed houses are listed as historic landmarks with the Department of The Interior, but that does not protect properties unless owners receive federal funding for restoration. The City and County did not receive federal funding for the demolished properties [says who and why?]

Butler County Commission Chairman Joey Peavy said the county purchased the Wright-Kilgore house as the only bidder at a foreclosure sale. 

“No one else was there,” Peavy said. “We were the only ones who bid.” People had every opportunity to purchase it.” 

According to Peavey, the public is notified of such sales by advertisements that run for 3-4 consecutive weeks in a local newspaper. He also said the property adjoins a parcel currently owned by the county. The property was purchased for the land to build a facility on which the Sheriff can hold large pieces of evidence like tractors, cars, and ATVs. 

“I feel like it’s good for all citizens,” Peavy said. 

And while opponents of the demolition suggested a historic cemetery stood on the property, Peavey said “There was no documentation of a cemetery. The county’s future use of the space is a much needed facility which would benefit all of Butler County, he noted. 

The City recently purchased the homes and structures located on the block of Caldwell and Milner Streets. Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce Director Tracy Salter says the space will be used to develop a city park. 

“There are currently three homes and one business structure located in the block area, of which the owners presented the city the opportunity to purchase.” Salter said. “The city has many ongoing downtown revitalization and beautification projects in the works and this is one that will tie several of those together.”

According to Salter, all of the details are not yet finalized. The park area’s design will be  versatile and used for multiple purposes geared to attract residents and visitors to the beautiful historic downtown district, in turn driving more foot traffic to existing businesses and creating opportunities for new prospective businesses to locate in the downtown area, she said.

“The city appreciates and values the history behind all properties,” Salter said. “All but one of the properties on the block have been vacant for quite some time, and due to the interior and structural conditions the safe dismantlement of structures has begun.” 

Salter says updates on new construction will be provided as they become available.