Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Black House will be an eyesore no more

Christian Trejbal

Recent columns

From the RoundTable blog

On Tuesday, Blacksburg finally will break ground on renovations at the Alexander Black House. I thought this day would never arrive.

Black, a descendant of one of the town's founding families, was a prominent late 19th and early 20th century businessman involved in several ventures. Among them, he founded the Bank of Blacksburg, which survives today as the National Bank of Blacksburg.

He prospered and around 1897 built the Queen Anne Victorian-style home that bears his name. When he died in 1935, his family sold it. It became a funeral home that served the community until 2002.

That is when the story takes a twist. The town at the time eyed the property for commercial development and worked with a local developer on Kent Square. They could have just torn down the old to make way for the new, but the town had bigger ideas.

Blacksburg did not want to lose a landmark building. It came up with the audacious idea to buy the house and move it across Draper Road to the top of a knoll where it now stands. The move cost nearly $500,000.

Mayor Ron Rordam once called the house "the jewel of all the remaining structures within the initial town limits of Blacksburg."

If it is a jewel, then it is in sorry need of polish. Since its move, the town has done little to improve the house. It built a foundation and installed some utilities, but for more than a decade now Black's home has been more haunted house than historic landmark, an embarrassing edifice in which the occasional dead rodent turns up.

Money has been the problem. Full renovation will cost $3million. Originally, that was supposed to come in equal parts from the town (i.e., taxpayers), private fundraising and tax credits. The tax credits never materialized as hoped, and fundraising stagnated. Town Hall, meanwhile, turned first to restoring Saint Luke and Odd Fellows Hall. That was a worthy project in its own right, a monument in the town's historic black neighborhood, but it gobbled limited funds.

With Odd Fellows complete, the town's eye returns to the Black House. Council so far has thrown in more than half of the needed $3million. Meanwhile, fundraising has produced about $500,000. That is enough to get something done.

On Tuesday, a quartet of dignitaries will wield the proverbial golden shovels. Rordam is an obvious choice. Jim Rakes is president of the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation, an independent nonprofit the town spun off to manage the Black House and its fundraising. Mike Snyder is vice president of Snyder and Associates, the local contractor that will restore the building. And Randy Holmes is a Richmond architect whose firm has worked on the project.

After they break ground, the real work begins. There is enough money right now to complete the exterior of the building and part of the first floor. The outside will be painted olive green with brick red trim. The grounds will receive minimal landscaping; full gardens will come with more funding. It's not everything promised and envisioned, but it is an important start.

This phase of the restoration will take nine or 10months, according to officials. It should be done by the end of the year.

Next up, the foundation needs to raise another $750,000. When it has that money, it will be able to finish renovating the rest of the first floor and upstairs.

Once people can get inside the building and need not avert their eyes from a monstrosity as they stroll by, fundraisers might have far better luck engaging the community and loosening checkbooks. Movies on the lawn last summer were fun, but they could raise awareness only so much.

Ruins are fine for some places. Even in the New River Valley, the occasional dilapidated structure holds appeal. Visitors to Mountain Lake will find no better view than the one from the ruined clubhouse of the abandoned golf course atop the mountains.

Those are the exceptions, though. History is better when it is alive, a functional space that preserves and cherishes the past while writing new chapters in an ongoing story. The Black House has had quite a story so far, and as it becomes a long-envisioned community center, there surely is more to come.

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