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Italians visit Obici House

As a group toured Suffolk’s iconic Obici House on Monday, the language was different, but the love for Suffolk philanthropist Amedeo Obici and his wife Louise was familiar.

While a group of tourists from Oderzo, Italy, visited the former Suffolk home of their native son, the empty rooms echoed with the sounds of his native tongue.

The group, visiting the city as part of a Sister Cities International exchange program, made the visit to the historic Italianate home one of the last stops in a busy itinerary that had included a tour of the hospital that bears the Obici name, a look at a collection of his art and a brief look at the peanut company he founded in the last century.

For some of the visitors, though, visiting the house seemed to be the emotional highlight of the trip.

“It has to be restored,” Ivan Jhirardo said through an interpreter as he looked at the old home. “We are willing to save the house of Obici. It’s a piece of history.”

Jhirardo, who specializes in restoring the roofs of homes in Italy that are 200 to 300 years old, was excited when he talked about the situation at the Obici House, for which Suffolk officials are seeking restoration and reuse plans.

Given the opportunity to participate in the restoration, he said, he would come back to America “right away, for free.”

Jhirardo could get the chance to do just that if the Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House submits the winning proposal to the city in September. The group has been working with Powell Management Associates to come up with a plan to restore the home to its former grandeur and to find a use that would keep it publicly available and compatible with the adjacent Sleepy Hole Golf Course.

Jhirardo believes he could bring something to the project that other craftsmen from America would not.

“Besides what the Americans can do, we can put feeling and heart into it,” he said.

The building is similar to the architecture around Oderzo, which is in Northern Italy, about 45 minutes from Venice, according to Marisa Forner, president of that town’s Obici Association.

And the reverence in which they hold the man who left their town for America as an 11-year-old boy is clear.

The town has its own Obici-built hospital, there is a school named after the man and students there still take lessons from Amedeo Obici’s marketing genius.

“Obici means so much for not just the (United) States, but for our town,” she said.

During their tour of Suffolk on Monday, the Italian visitors got an extra treat — a bit of travelers’ luck — when they met a couple from Kentucky who happened to be at Sentara Obici Hospital at the same time they were visiting.

Helen Musante Berkey Neufang and her husband are in Virginia for a wedding later this week and had decided on a brief visit to Suffolk, where they hoped to learn more about her family.

“Musante” was Louise’s maiden name, and she was the first cousin of Neufang’s grandfather.

“My mother always told me that my grandfather came down here frequently,” she said of the old Bay Point Farm, where the Obici House was built. “He was very close to that cousin.”

Monday marked the first time that Neufang had ever been inside the home.

“It’s great to walk in there and know that it was their house,” she said. “We never dreamed we’d meet anybody” connected with the old hometown.

Standing outside the home and talking with the Suffolk representatives who had been the Italians’ tour guides, Neufang said it was sad to see that the old Obici Memorial Hospital no longer exists.

Maryjane Naismith, a member of the local group working to make a proposal for the house didn’t miss a beat.

“We’d love to have your help” saving this building, she said.

Proposals for restoring and reusing the old Obici House are due to the city by Sept. 10.