Group calls Obici House ‘endangered historic site’

Published 9:19 pm Monday, May 18, 2009

One big difference between the Obici House and eight other places named as the nine most endangered historic sites in Virginia on Monday is the fact that there is real danger of the former being demolished in the name of progress.

If the historic Suffolk home were torn down now, it would be only the third time since Preservation Virginia — formerly the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities — started releasing its list of endangered places, buildings and archeological sites that one of those so named was actually lost.

For the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society and others interested in saving the former homestead of Suffolk philanthropist Amedeo Obici, Preservation Virginia’s record of saving nearly all of its targeted historic resources is one big reason to get the group involved in the fight to save the home.

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Having the home that sits beside the 18th green at the Sleepy Hole Golf Course named as an endangered historic site raises the awareness locally and statewide of its precarious situation, Louis Malon, director of preservation services for Preservation Virginia, said Monday.

Malon stood on the front porch of the Italianate-style home, along with SNHS members and a few interested citizens, to announce the building’s inclusion on the annual list.

“We encourage the nominators of these sites to use the listing to raise awareness as to how these irreplaceable historic places can be contributors to the economic, educational and cultural health of their communities,” he said.

“The house,” he added, “could be torn town before the end of the year.”

The Suffolk City Council is seeking proposals from companies with ideas of how to rehabilitate. That request for proposals is related to an earlier one, which sought bids for leasing or buying the adjacent golf course.

Members of the local historical society worry that the 85-year-old house could find itself at the mercy of a developer who would want to build a new clubhouse to support the golf operations.

Losing the Obici House would be a big blow to Suffolk’s history and to the legacy of Amedeo Obici and his wife, Louise, said SNHS President Sue Woodward.

“Mr. Obici was so important to Suffolk,” she said. “Everybody just assumed that the city would think this was important.”

As rumors began to circulate about the potential fate of Obici’s home earlier this year, however, Woodward and others began to question the city’s commitment to the building, and a movement to save it was set in motion.

A Facebook group, Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House, was formed, boasting 29 members as of Monday evening.

And a member of the Obici family got involved, nominating the home for inclusion on the Preservation Virginia list. Jolyne Dalzell, a grandniece of the Suffolk couple, submitted the information that a committee from Preservation Virginia used to pick the home for this year’s list.

On Monday, with “No Trespassing” signs posted at doors and windows of the vacant, water-damaged and rotting home, Woodward and others recalled times in the not-too-distant past when it was well-cared-for and open to the public.

Obici, she said, used to hold a festival each year when the weigelia shrubs were in bloom. People would be charged a fee to visit, and the money raised would be given to charity.

More recently — especially when the city of Portsmouth operated the golf course — the building was used for post-tournament banquets, wedding receptions and other private functions.

The “No Trespassing” signs, she said, only appeared after her group began clamoring to save the building.

“It had a wonderful use before, when it was used for special events,” she said, and the group hopes it can one day be used again in much the same manner.

Susan Blair, who started the Facebook group in support of the Obici House, said she and others understand that the city doesn’t have the money to restore the building. They just want the city’s support so they can get the private donations and tax credits that eventually would fund the work, she added.

“We just want it to be used by and for the community,” she said. “(Obici) loved the citizens and the city of Suffolk.”

“Other communities have launched similar projects to reuse residential structures as community centers, clubhouses and other uses,” Preservation Virginia’s Malon said. “We urge the city to redouble its efforts to find a sympathetic buyer to undertake the restoration and adaptation of this important link with so many aspects of Suffolk’s proud heritage.”