Plan could sink Historic Society’s effort to save house

Published 8:24 pm Tuesday, February 5, 2019

By Frederic Lee

Staff writer 

The Isle of Wight County Historical Society asked the Smithfield Town Council to allow them to preserve the Wombwell house onsite and to possibly convert it in to a headquarters for the Society on Jan. 29. 

The town-owned property where the Wombwell house sits is also the location where Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams envisions an indoor sports complex for citizens to enjoy in the future. 

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The “Tidewater cottage”-style Wombwell house is located within town limits along Route 258, just east of the recently-constructed Joseph W. Luter Jr. Sports complex that’s currently undergoing construction on its current facilities. The town has long maintained that the house is a hazard to children playing nearby. At one point the town offered the house to anyone who would be willing to move it for $1, and with no offers, had made plans to demolish it. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Preserve Smithfield, a local organization founded several years ago with the aim of saving historic buildings in the town, has made efforts in the past year to prevent the Wombwell house’s demolition, and the Historical Society has picked up the cause as well.

The Historical Society currently doesn’t have a headquarters, and according to two representatives, the preservation effort will be self-funded.   

Albert Burckard, vice president of the Isle of Wight County Historical Society, spoke at the Smithfield Town Council Public Buildings and Welfare Committee meeting in favor of definitely preserving the structure and converting it into a headquarters for the society, if possible.  

In an interview on Feb. 1, Burckard said that if the town wants to relocate the house, as staff has proposed previously several times in the past, the Historical Society isn’t interested. “It’s a landmark,” said Burckard, emphasizing the house’s property, and the practical importance of landmarks in terms of historical and current legal documents, such as plot maps.     

Other requests from the society to the town include delaying demolition of the circa-1840s cottage for at least six months, which would allow the society time to enact “Phase One” of their rescue plan, said Burckard. 

The first phase includes the immediate “mothballing” of the house, which would set it up as to prevent further deterioration and other damage resulting from neglect.  

The first phase also involves determining the current condition of the house by conducting termite, rot, asbestos, water damage and mold damage inspections. Additionally, ground-penetrating radar would be used to detect extant but forgotten gravesites on the house’s property. 

The formulation of architectural drawings or sketches showing the existing condition of the building and the proposed preservation plans going forward is also part of the Society’s initial steps, said Burckard. 

“We would not ask for funding from ya’ll,” said Historical Society President Carolyn Keen to Town Council. She added that the society has enough funding to enact the first phase of the effort, outlined above. 

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources recently sent a letter to town officials stressing the importance of preserving the house due to its historical significance.  

Last July, an agreement to Preserve Smithfield was extended by Town Manager Brian Thrower that would prevent the demolition of the Wombwell house until after Dec. 31, 2018 so that the organization could have time to raise funds for the relocation of the house. 

Preserve Smithfield never returned the agreement signed, according to town staff.  {/mprestriction}