Thursday, April 20, 2000

Historic home's fate up to city

BY Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — The city's decision to save 3,700 square feet of charred, dampened and subdivided 192-year-old house from demolition raises a raft of new questions.

        How much will it cost to repair and renovate? Where will that money come from?

        What will the city do with the building once it's done?

        The Federal-style house at 27 N. Mechanic St., which City Council voted 4-1 last week to take through eminent domain, held apartments until it caught fire in November. The blaze burned at least 42 percent of the building, and the damaged area has been exposed to weather for the past two months.

        Owner John McComb has a demolition permit and could tear down the building despite council's vote. He said, however, that in light of City Council's interest, he would not do that.

        The house can and must be saved, historic preservationists convinced council.

        “It can be made a handsome building for downtown Lebanon,” says Bruce Goetzman, a Cincinnati restoration architect who evaluated the building for the Lebanon Conservancy Foundation.

        Features such as the “very nice, simple, Federal-style staircase” can be re stored, he said. Other typical Federal features include an elliptical fanlight — a type of window — above the front door and the building's squarish, symmetrical facade.

        The house is thought to have been built in 1807 or 1808, just before the prop erty was sold to Samuel Nixon, the third treasurer of Warren County.

        “It wasn't an elaborate house,” Mr. Goetzman said. “It wasn't the house of a wealthy person at all. It was basically a middle-class house.”

        The original building is the front part, which held two rooms upstairs and two downstairs, he said. The back of the house, which more than doubled the footage, was built a little later.

        The conservancy foundation, a nonprofit group that led the fight to save the building, last week uncovered information that suggests it was built by the Shakers.

        First, the boards and studs are not hand-sawed, and the closest sawmill in the early 1800s was the Shakers' just west of Lebanon in Otterbein. Secondly, an old photo of a house in Otterbein closely resembles the Mechanic Street house.

        That makes the building of historic interest because most Shak er buildings are in the East, said Marilyn Haley, foundation president. There are few still standing in the Midwest, she said.

        Mr. McComb, a businessman and former councilman, bought the damaged building in February intending to tear it down and expand parking on the site. The fire chief, in fact, issued an order in November, renewed in February, that the house be repaired or torn down within 90 days.

        Ms. Haley personally offered Mr. McComb $80,000 for the property. Mr. McComb, who paid $75,000 for it, made a counteroffer of $150,000. That sets the likely parameters of what the city will have to pay for the house.

        If Mr. McComb and the city can't agree on the price, a court will decide that.

        The city, however, wants to get an appraisal before making an offer. City Attorney Mark Yurick is looking for an appraiser who can do the job quickly.

        Once the city buys the house, the foundation says, it should be able to get grants for the renovations. Mr. Goetzman estimated the cost at around $100,000, but that only included the original, front half of the house, he said. Mr. McComb received an estimate of nearly $300,000 for the entire house.

        Councilman Ron Pandorf said he doesn't want the city to shoulder the whole bill. He hopes groups and residents will donate goods, services and money toward the effort.

        “I'm going to push hard for public participation in fixing it up,” he said.

        Talk so far has focused on using the building for city offices or as a museum.

        “The possibility of it as a Shaker museum is just incredible,” Ms. Haley said. “... You talk about a boost for the downtown, and tourism — this would be incredible.”


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