Wombwell House decision delayed

Published 6:23 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Discussions are continuing to finalize a proposed agreement in which the Town of Smithfield would lease the antebellum-era Wombwell House to the Isle of Wight County Historical Society for $1 a year for 20 years.

Town Council met in closed session during a March 4 meeting to discuss the issue, but no decision was made, according to town manager Michael Stallings. He said the Public Buildings and Welfare Committee will meet to continue work on the lease in collaboration with the historical society.

Stallings said the issue may return to the committee’s agenda later this month.

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After reviewing an initial agreement in February, council members said additional details needed to be worked out before the agreement could move forward. The historical society intends to use the Wombwell House as its organizational headquarters. The building, which dates to the 1840s, stands today near the Luter Sports Complex.

In exchange for the 20-year-long, $1 annual lease, the historical society plans to preserve the vintage structure.

Built by Dr. Jordan Wombwell, the residence may have had a role in Civil War-era activities that happened in and around Smithfield, according to Marc Wagner, a senior architectural historian with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Richmond.

An updated lease addresses concerns council members expressed at a February meeting. Among other issues, the revised agreement specifies a timeline for preservation work, requires the historical society to provide proof of cash to cover the first year of repair work and requires the society to carry a $2 million liability insurance policy.

In the first two years, the organization’s proposed work on the house is slated to include repairs to the roof, chimney and foundation brickwork, removing vinyl siding and 1950s-era window awnings, upgrading the electrical and plumbing systems and locating a family cemetery that may be on the property.

Future work will include restoring the wood floors, insulating the attic and adding a modern HVAC system. The agreement also says the society may only use the house as administrative offices, for meetings, fundraising, fellowship events and for providing the public with a place to access the organization’s historical materials. The historical society said it has $50,000 available to start work on the house, according to a previous committee report.

In recent years, the Wombwell House’s fate had been uncertain.

In 2016, the town put the house on the market for $1 to anyone willing to relocate it at their own expense. When that didn’t work, town council voted in early 2018 to let the volunteer fire department burn it down for a training exercise. But six months later, council voted to delay the demolition until 2019, when Preserve Smithfield, a local organization working to save the town’s historic buildings, expressed an interest in the property. The historical society approached the town in early 2019 about using the house as its headquarters.