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Group’s efforts bring action on Obici House

A group of about 50 citizens turned out in force to support the preservation of the Obici House at a City Council meeting Wednesday night.

Their efforts resulted in a vote by council to have the city manager draft a request for proposals for potential uses for the historic home.

Packed into the back half of council chambers, the members of Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House broke into applause when Jolyne Dalzell, the great-niece of Amedeo Obici, finished her speech before City Council. The group turned up to advocate for the mansion Obici moved onto his Bay Point Dairy Farm estate in 1924, when he moved here from Pennsylvania. As philanthropists, the Obicis supported the people of Suffolk both before and after their deaths, from paying for educations and giving teens jobs to bequeathing 98 percent of their estate to health care in Suffolk.

After Obici’s death, the house and surrounding estate went through a series of transactions until it was sold to the city of Portsmouth, became a park and golf course, and was then sold to the city of Suffolk.

In recent months, rumors swirled that the city was planning to demolish the Obici House as part of an agreement to lease the golf course. As a result, the Preservation Virginia group named the house one of its 2009 Most Endangered Historic Sites in Virginia.

However, Mayor Linda T. Johnson went out of her way to debunk the rumors on Wednesday night.

“There was no intention to destroy or demolish the house,” Johnson said.

Ronnie Rountree, the winning bidder for the lease of the surrounding golf course, assured council that he plans on cooperating with any private group that wants to pay to restore the house. The Obici House, as well as the nearby Carriage House, both sit on the golf course but were not included in the lease.

Dalzell, Obici’s great-niece, told council she was appalled at the rumors of the Obici House’s impending demise. She related stories of her uncle’s love for family, friends, the community and his pet goats, and recounted experiences she had there during her childhood.

“He helped so many people here in Suffolk,” Dalzell said. “This house should be open to the public,” she finished, to a round of applause.

Susan Blair, a member of Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House, said that two different structural engineers the group has brought in both determined the house to be structurally sound. The house needs major work to the porches and roof, and repair from water damage, but the house isn’t about to fall onto the 18th hole of the golf course.

Blair also presented a petition with more than 500 signatures for the preservation of the home.

Mary Jane Naismith, representing the citizens’ group, said its members were willing to work diligently to help ensure the home’s protection. Naismith requested a 12-month moratorium on doing anything with the house to give the group time to find funding opportunities.

“I urge you not to act in haste,” she pleaded.

Council, however, was reluctant to impose any time constraints on the project without a formal RFP process. Therefore, the council voted unanimously to direct city staff to present a draft request for proposals at the June 17 meeting. Specifics of land surrounding the house and space for ingress and egress were discussed, but not finalized, during the meeting.