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Obici House work begins

Demolition and hazardous materials abatement have begun on the historic Obici House in preparation for turning the building over to leaseholder Ronnie Rountree.

A city contractor has been removing unstable portions of the structure and doing lead and asbestos abatement. The front and back porches and a portion of the kitchen have been removed. In addition, the adjacent Carriage House has been demolished.

The home is the estate of Suffolk benefactor and Planters Peanuts founder Amedeo Obici. Upon his death, Obici left nearly his entire estate to Suffolk residents for the improvement of health care in the city.

The city’s contractor is doing the $250,000 demolition project in preparation for turning the building over to Rountree, Deputy City Manager Patrick Roberts said on Monday.

“We’re close to being able to issue building permits to Ronnie,” Roberts said. “Now that we’ve identified what the building’s going to be used for, how it’s going to be renovated, we’re finishing a project that’s long overdue.”

The porches were removed because of structural concerns, Roberts said.

“The rear is where the most structural problems were,” Roberts said. “That was where the weather had taken its toll the worst on the building.”

Susan Blair, who helped head up an effort to save the building as president of Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House, said she did not think there was anything wrong with the front porch, but agreed the back porch had to go.

“I knew the back porch had to come off,” she said. “That one had some structure issues so I knew that one had to come off … but I don’t understand why he took the front porch and the kitchen.”

Rountree said an eight-foot section of the kitchen was removed, because the floor was so rotted that it could be seen through in some areas.

“We’ll tie the kitchen back into the Obici House,” Rountree said, noting he also plans to replace both porches.

Rountree intends to renovate the home and make it a facility that can be rented for weddings, receptions and similar events, he said.

“What we plan on doing is renovate it and put it back in as good a shape as we can put it back in,” he said. “It’s going to be a slow process getting it back.”

In January, Suffolk City Council voted to authorize City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn to execute an agreement with Rountree. The lease, which was effective May 1, dictates that the city would abate all hazardous materials and structurally unstable conditions at the Obici and Carriage houses and remove all debris by Aug. 1.

Where the Carriage House formerly stood, Rountree plans to construct a pro shop with porches and connect it to the Obici House. Roberts said a number of possible uses were investigated for the Carriage House, but in the end the building was unsuitable for any of them.

“We looked at it from a number of angles,” Roberts said. “The building in every way is functionally obsolete. It’s a building that was built to store cars and carriages, and trying to retrofit that for any type of modern use really became a frustrating activity.”

Blair is concerned the home will have to be removed from national and state historic registers because of the renovation work.

“I just couldn’t believe they’ve completely ruined the historical integrity of the house,” Blair said. “I’m very saddened.”

Rountree, however, thinks the house will stay on the registers.

“I can’t think it’s going to come off the historical register,” he said. “I don’t know why it would.”

For his lease of the golf course, the Obici House and surrounding facilities, Rountree should pay $356,000 annually as a lease payment, but he is allowed to subtract the cost of capital improvements made to the facility. If capital costs are less than the lease payment, the balance will be remitted to the city. If capital costs are more than $356,000 in one year, the excess balance may be applied to the lease payment due the following year.

According to a worksheet submitted with the lease agreement, estimated costs for the Obici renovation, site work, demolition, maintenance facility, pro shop, deck and other costs equal roughly $4.5 million. With estimated interest at 7 percent for 20 years equaling about $3.9 million, the total principal and interest equals $8.47 million. That total, if spread equally over 20 years, would be $423,655 — more than the annual lease payment.

“Everything he builds out there, not only are they likely to appreciate in value, all of those things become the property of the local taxpayer,” Roberts said. “Those improvements are now the property of the city.”

Rountree said he hopes the house will be around for many more generations to enjoy.

“We’re going to fix the house back up to where it will hopefully stay there for many years to come,” he said.