Town moves ahead with demolition

Published 6:19 pm Tuesday, September 18, 2018

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

The Town of Smithfield is moving ahead to demolish the Wombwell house, a beleaguered Tidewater cottage-style house that sits next to the newly opened Joseph W. Luter Jr. Sports Complex. 

Preserve Smithfield, led by Mark Gay, has not signed an agreement proffered in July by the town, which stated that demolition would be suspended until Dec. 31 to give the nonprofit time to raise the money and obtain enough property necessary to move the circa 1842 house. 

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The issue was discussed briefly at an August Town Council committee meeting, where council members expressed concern that the document had not been signed, and there had been little communication from Preserve Smithfield.  {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

They are asking for more and more time by not signing the agreement and the town needs to move forward, said Town Council member Randy Pack at the committee meeting.  

Gay told the town earlier this month that the property it had considered, which is off Waterworks Road, would require extensive clearing and is so remote that preservation efforts would serve little purpose. 

Gay also said that costs to move the house were still unknown.

In his email to the town, Gay suggested a site at Riverview Park that is owned by Isle of Wight County.

“Nearby is a walking trail that leads to the memorial tree plantings and the benches at the overlook site.  A preserved and historic structure at that location would serve all public interests very well,” said Gay.

After a meeting earlier this month, Town Manager Brian Thrower informed Gay that the town plans to move ahead with demolition.

“The town has safety concerns with the house continuing to sit there, especially with ball season just starting this past weekend.  In light of there not being any real movement on relocating the property and Preserve Smithfield not signing the agreement to date, the town plans to proceed with demolishing the property in the near future,” said Thrower in an email to Gay.

Thrower said Thursday that a date for demolition has not yet been set. Recently, the Smithfield Fire Department used the house for training. 

Town Council members had expressed concern that children at the sports complex would be lured to the vacant house and possibly be injured. 

In response to a letter from the town about the upcoming demolition, Gay responded, “Strong personalities on council/staff have pressured from the beginning to raze the property.  Apparently, the house does not enhance the broader “aesthetics” of the sports complex (or obstructs someone’s selfish designs for future property use).”

Efforts to move and preserve the Wombwell house have been ongoing for two years, when the Town of Smithfield offered the house for $1 to anyone who could move it elsewhere.  Prior to the town purchasing the property for the sports complex, the house had sat vacant for 18 years. 

Moving the actual house wasn’t the problem, according to those who considered doing so. The real expense was paying for the power lines to be set aside as the structure was transported elsewhere. 

At the time, the town received one proposal concerning the house, but rejected it because it asked the town to pay the moving expenses.  

Historian Helen Haverty King listed the Wombwell house in her book, “Historic Isle of Wight.” 

Originally published in 1983, the book was updated and reprinted in color in 2007 by the Isle of Wight County Historical Society. The house is officially called the Dr. Jordan Wombwell house.

While not located in the town’s historic district, the book said the Tidewater-style cottage was common in the Mid-Atlantic region and Isle of Wight County. 

Wombwell’s descendant, George Wombwell, is concerned because a will indicates gravesites are nearby. 

“The reality is that it is the town’s responsibility — first and foremost — to preserve our historical structures and properties.  The “old and dilapidated house” (per town attorney William Riddick’s draft agreement) is a direct result of Town Council/manager neglect these past two years… simply because, in their eyes, the structures did not complement the ballpark’s ambience,” said Gay.

Preserve Smithfield originated as an effort to save another deteriorating, but historical house in town — Pierceville. 

The circa 1730 house came under town scrutiny nearly 10 years ago because of its condition. The owners and town are currently in litigation over its demolition.

Preserve Smithfield, unable to raise money for Pierceville’s preservation, had at one time asked the town to fund the repairs.  {/mprestriction}