Town says ‘no demolition’

Published 12:07 pm Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Derelict Pierceville owners may go to court

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

Smithfield Town Council unanimously denied an application to tear down several crumbling, but historically significant buildings located at 502 Grace St., commonly known as Pierceville.

The decision, made following a number of impassioned pleas from residents to save the controversial 1730s manor house and its outbuildings, is a final stand by the town to enforce its historic preservation ordinance, which requires that the homeowner make the necessary repairs to the structures, first deemed to be in violation by the town in 2009.

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The appeal from Pierceville owner Mary Crocker and her legal representative Archer Jones to demolish the buildings was first rejected by the Board of Historic and Architectural Review (BHAR) in February. It then went automatically to the Town Council for review Tuesday, April 4.  {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Now, with local governmental appeals exhausted, it may be up to a judge to decide whether or not the house can be saved, should the 86-year old Crocker choose to take the matter to court, which Jones has said his client is prepared to do.

Town Council members, however, said that an approval of the demolition would have been precedent-setting.

“We have to defend the town’s ability to preserve the Historic District,” said Vice Mayor Andrew Gregory of enforcing the ordinance, which was first established in the town in 1979.

Council member Milton Cook, who is chair of the Public Buildings and Welfare committee, said it was a matter of responsibility for the council to uphold the laws in place.

“If we’re not willing to enforce a historic preservation ordinance, then why do we have it?” Cook said during the meeting.

The Pierceville manor house and its outbuildings, considered some of the oldest buildings in Smithfield, have received no maintenance or repairs during the 40-plus years since Crocker inherited ownership of the property, Jones said to the council. During those 40 years, the town made no effort to enforce the ordinance until 2009, Jones said.

Crocker, who was born on the property in 1930, inherited it from her parents in the early 1970s, according to Jones. Her family purchased the property, which was once owned by Captain Thomas Pierce and is older than the town itself, in 1918.

“She loves it as a home,” Jones said of Crocker’s connection to the historic buildings, but doesn’t have the money needed to make the repairs required by the ordinance. Jones contends that, even if she did have the money, the buildings are too far gone.

“You might as well take that money and throw it in the Pagan River,” Jones said regarding funds needed for a restoration.  

Jones also noted that Crocker had offered to hand over the property to the town a few years ago, but the town showed no interest in accepting it.

Jones said that that offer still stands.

The property, which includes about 50 acres of farmland, is currently on the market and listed for $2 million.

The public comment portion of the meeting attracted a large number of residents who spoke strongly in favor of preventing the destruction of the dilapidated manor house, which is listed as a landmark structure in the town. A Smithfield Police officer was posted outside the entrance of the crowded meeting at The Smithfield Center.

Preservation Virginia representative Sonja Ingram spoke on behalf of her organization, a Richmond-based nonprofit preservation group established in 1889, in asking the town to deny the demolition application.

“It’s something you will not see anywhere in the United States,” said Ingram of the buildings. “This is what makes Smithfield Smithfield.”

Ingram said there are also signs of a slave building on the property.

Lee Duncan, owner of Wharf Hill Brewing Co. on Main Street, said that preservation is an important part of Smithfield’s character, and that the ordinance has saved notable historic buildings in the town before, including the 1830s Dr. Jordan Parker House on Main Street and his own company’s building, formerly The Elk’s Building (1906), both of which were brought back from disrepair and successfully restored.

“Pierceville has the same potential,” Duncan said.

Mark Hall, who lives nearby Pierceville, said that historic properties are the town’s “brand.” 

“It will erase 300 years of history in two hours,” Hall said of a possible demolition of the buildings. “I would not be able to sleep knowing that.”

Council member Denise Tynes said she looked at the property and its slave quarters remnants from the perspective of an African-American, who “don’t have a lot of history.”

“That is my heritage, and whenever I have the opportunity to preserve that, I will,” said Tynes.

Council member Connie Chapman also said she believes the buildings can still be saved.

“Anything can be fixed if enough money is put into it, if enough passion is put into it.” {/mprestriction}