The tremendous value of saving Obici House

Published 9:46 pm Monday, January 11, 2010

At the request of the City of Suffolk for proposals to save the Obici House, the Citizens for the Preservation of the Obici House (CPOH) submitted, on Oct. 22, a comprehensive plan to restore and reuse the house. Their goal was to preserve this important piece of Suffolk’s history and turn it into a place of beauty, enjoyment, and education for the citizens of Suffolk.

While far from perfect, the plan represented a sincere attempt by well-meaning citizens to help the city and preserve one of its most precious assets. Aside from the necessity of providing water and sewer to the site, the CPOH proposal did not require the city to spend one cent. The proposal was designed with the help of reputable architects and contractors who are experienced in historical restoration. It included a conceptual outline for financing the project, and even envisioned the day when the profitable use of the house would generate tax revenue for the city.

Upon its initial submission, this proposal was rejected without explanation. Subsequent explanations have been cloaked in negativity and have contained requests for more information than the CPOH can reasonably provide at this early stage in the project. The city has consistently defended their intransigence with procedural roadblocks and has never demonstrated the slightest interest in helping the CPOH develop a more viable plan.

Why?

I believe the unsupportive response of the administration has been due to misdirection by the City Council, resulting from the Council’s misguided priorities and lack of imagination. From the outset, the Council has been more interested in catering to the wishes of the golf course operator than saving a piece of Suffolk’s history. Moreover, the Council has failed to appreciate the significance of the Obici House to current and future generations of our citizens. In this regard, the Council’s indifference is not unlike the shortsighted decisions of previous Councils which deprived us of our lakes and many of our historic public buildings and homes.

Why save the Obici House?

You might as well ask why save Mt. Vernon, or Monticello, or any number of homes of famous people across our country; homes whose owners left no money for their preservation; homes located on otherwise valuable real estate; homes that have no significance other than being the residence of an important person. Like other historic buildings across America, the Obici House tells the story of who we are as a people and how a community of immigrants became the greatest nation on earth.

Amedeo Obici immigrated to America at age 11, all by himself, with no money, no English skills and little education. Through hard work, perseverance and ingenuity, he became one of the most successful businessmen in history, the father of one of the world’s most recognized corporate symbols and a philanthropist who gave back most of his wealth to his adopted city. Amedeo Obici was the embodiment of the American dream. His story is our story. It is a story Suffolk has failed to take advantage of for years and which it now threatens to suppress further by destroying the last remaining vestige of the Obici’s personal and family life.

Now we have the opportunity to restore Mr. Obici’s home and, thereby, to honor his contribution to our city and to educate present and future generations of our citizens and visitors to Suffolk. With its beautiful inlaid floors, stained glass windows, ornate chandeliers, unique banisters and gorgeous views of the Nansemond River, the Obici House is the best place to tell the story of the Obici family and, through them, the story of the Industrial Revolution, the Golden Age, and the influence of immigration on American culture.

Whether it is ultimately used as a restaurant, a museum, a venue for special events, a retreat center, a spa, or any combination of the above, I’m convinced the Obici House will succeed in keeping the Obici story alive, especially for our youth. Furthermore, restored to its original beauty, the house can be a tremendous asset to the golf course (after all, it’s featured in the golf course logo), and a valuable tourist attraction for the city.

Given the historical significance of this house and its potential benefit to the city, why would the Council not direct the City Manager and her staff to work with those who are trying to save it? Surely, the city and the CPOH can work together to devise a plan that will save the house as well as benefit the golf course. Surely, the city has more to gain financially and politically by saving the house than by undertaking the costly and acrimonious process of demolishing it. Surely, future generations will look back on this Council with gratitude for having the foresight to save and restore an important piece of American history. Surely, we will all take pride in knowing that Suffolk is a city that honors and respects its past.

Douglas C. Naismith

Suffolk