Wombwell house negotiations end

Published 7:10 pm Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Isle of Wight County Historical Society’s negotiations with the town of Smithfield to lease the circa-1840s Wombwell House have fallen through.

The society had hoped to convert the town-owned cottage located on Main Street between Westside Elementary School and the Luter Sports Complex into its headquarters. As of March, the proposed memorandum of understanding would have leased the property to the historical society for $1 a year for the next 20 years.

According to Town Manager Michael Stallings, the end to the negotiations came at the historical society’s request last week when Historical Society President Carolyn Keen sent a letter to Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams stating she and her fellow members were “disappointed” that they were unable to negotiate a mutually beneficial partnership with the town to preserve the Wombwell house for future generations.

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“We understand the Town Council positions and respect your decisions,” she writes.

But neither the town nor the historical society has gone on record as to the sticking point that caused the negotiations to end. Keen issued a press release on behalf of the historical society the morning of April 26, which reiterates the remarks she had made in her letter to Williams.

From November 2019 through January 2021, the historical society had a contract with the town to study the feasibility of converting the home into the group’s headquarters, which granted members access to the property in hopes of eventually securing a long-term lease. The society, according to its November 2020 newsletter, had done everything required in that contract except for securing donations and grants for restoration by the Jan. 31 deadline.

During that time, the historical society has devoted funds and volunteer hours to research and stabilize the historic house, Keen’s press release states, which included working with a descendent of the home’s builder, Dr. Jordan Wombwell.

As of March, the draft long-term lease agreement had required the historical society to provide proof of cash to cover the first year of repairs and carry a $2 million liability insurance policy per concerns Town Council members had expressed in February.

The historic home’s fate has been a local point of controversy for the past few years. In 2016, the town had put the house on the market for $1 to anyone willing to relocate it at his or her own expense. When that failed to attract a buyer, Smithfield’s Town Council voted in early 2018 to let the town’s volunteer fire department burn it down for a training exercise.

Town Council members had argued at the time that the house’s proximity to the new sports complex was a hazard to children playing nearby, but six months later, voted to delay demolition until 2019 — at which time the historical society expressed an interest in converting the house into its headquarters.

Now that those negotiations have fallen through, the home’s fate is once again uncertain.

According to Historic Isle of Wight by Helen Haverty King, the house is an example of the Tidewater cottage, an architectural form dating to the mid-19th century in the mid-Atlantic region. A 2018 letter from Virginia Department of Historic Resources senior architectural historian Marc C. Wagner, whom Keen quotes in her press release, also makes a case for the home’s restoration.

Wagner describes the house as presenting “a great opportunity for the Town to promote creative and adaptive reuses of buildings and set a solid example for community preservation.”

“The Virginia Department of Historic Resources strongly endorses the preservation of Wombwell House, and we hope the Town of Smithfield undertakes careful consideration of its stewardship of the historic property,” Wagner writes.

He also believes construction of the house may have begun prior to the generally accepted 1840s date, possibly up to 20 years earlier, according to the historical society’s newsletter.

But Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams — who in past years had expressed an interest in the town constructing an indoor sports facility on the Wombwell site — had that same year described the house as having been built as “inexpensively” as possible, with “shoddy” workmanship.

In February, Isle of Wight County’s Board of Supervisors discussed a proposed partnering with the historical society on a $40,000 renovation of the old detached clerk of court office located adjacent to the building that now houses the county’s boardroom. Per that discussion, the society would be given access to one of the front rooms for its meetings and a back room with existing rolling shelves to house its records.

Whether that, in lieu of the Wombwell house, will become the group’s headquarters is a matter still to be determined, according to Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson.