|Kilby Hotel owner Burnie McElrath speaks with preservation commission member Les Eger.|
The Guilford County Historic Preservation Commission used a parliamentary sleight of hand to stall action on request by the city of High Point to approve an order to demolish what one commissioner called "probably the best African-American landmark in High Point" on Thursday evening.
Faced with a choice between denying the city's order and approving it with a delay of one to 365 days go give the owner time to stabilize the historic Kilby Hotel, the commission did something else entirely. It continued the matter — an action not within its powers — through creative use of parliamentary procedure. They voted unanimously to go into recess without adjourning until Nov. 19, which Chairman John Buford noted happens to coincide with the commission's next scheduled meeting.
The decision came after appeals from County Commissioner Bruce Davis, who represents the section of High Point where the hotel is located; Hurley Derrickson, who helped establish the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro; and Benjamin Briggs, a High Point native and president of Preservation Greensboro.
Davis noted that the Kilby Hotel has been the focal point of the city of High Point's plans to redevelop the historic Washington Street district, which functioned as the black downtown at one time. He also noted the significance of an African-American woman — the great grandmother and great-great grandmother of current owners Burnie McElrath and Myra Williams — building the hotel at the dawn of segregation.
"Even after growing up it was something that we could say, 'This is something that an African-American woman built. We're talking back in 1913 or somewhere thereabouts. This African-American woman with meager resources compared to what we have today was able to build a hotel. So I can point to this building as it stands now and tell a young person that 'this is what took place. This is what happened. If this could be done in 1913, then you can do the same thing.' Now, if the Kilby goes up in dust and we put up a placard that says, 'The Kilby used to stand here,' then I have nothing to point to.'"
Derrickson, who was one of the original incorporators of the nonprofit that launched the civil rights museum in Greensboro, pledged to help McElrath and Williams create a nonprofit, recruit board members and qualify for tax credits to attract investors to save the building. He said, his friend, Earl Jones — a co-founder of the civil rights museum, and former member of the NC House of Representatives and Greensboro City Council — has also pledged his support.
Both Davis and Derrickson said rallying the community around the hotel will be critical to its survival.
But it was Benjamin Briggs, executive director of Preservation Greensboro, who ultimately persuaded the historic preservation commission to hit the pause button.
Briggs said that he applied for a grant to pay for a mediator to try to broker an agreement between the owners and the city in what he characterized as a "hail Mary pass." Only 24 hours prior to the meeting Briggs said he learned that the grant, for $1,500, had been approved. Briggs said that Ben Speller, a member of the NC Preservation Commission who was heavily involved in the development of the Hayti Center in Durham, has agreed to act as mediator, adding that he hadn't consulted with either the owners or the city to see if they would be interested.
"It's daunting," Briggs said. "One way I deal with this is to not look backwards, but look forwards on what can be done with the building. Certainly a massive restoration is needed here — a major investment is needed.
"What we came up with was mediation," Briggs continued. "Mediation would introduce a third party to this discussion and dialogue that was not necessarily connected to the owners' interest per se and not necessarily connected to the city's interest per se, but would be a voice for the building — for historic preservation."
Briggs said he hopes Speller would have a plan to move forward by Thanksgiving. Some members of the preservation commission said their decision to delay the decision through a motion to declare the meeting in recess was based on a desire to hear what Speller has to say about the prospects for coming up with a viable plan to save the hotel.
The preservation commission's decision to delay demolition comes in the wake of a decision by the city of High Point to block of a portion of Washington Street after the city received complaints that the building was shifting. The city discovered that the roof and third floor within the brick walls of the structure had collapsed.
Darrell Long, the code enforcement supervisor for the building section in the city's inspections department, said he believes there is a good chance the Kilby Hotel will collapse if no action is taken.
"I feel like the general public, if they come into proximity of the building, they could be in significant danger."
Edwin Brown Jr., an inspections administrator, said the street was closed after the fire department received calls stating that the sound of glass breaking was heard. He submitted a fire incident report referencing a complaint on Oct. 13 from a caller standing outside the Kilby Hotel who stated that "the building is now creaking like it's ready to collapse at any moment."
Members of city staff who argued for the demolition order said Washington Street sees a high volume of foot traffic, there is a bus stop in front of the hotel and there is a homeless shelter two blocks to the north. McElrath acknowledged that patrons of nearby Becky's and Mary's soul food restaurant, which is located on Washington Street, have told her that parked at a church and walked down the street to deal with the blockade.
CB2 Structural Engineers, a Winston-Salem engineering firm contracted by the city to assess the stability of the hotel recommended in December that the building either be shored up or demolished.
"The apparent collapse of portions of the roof structural diaphragm, and, the apparent collapse of portions of the third floor diaphragm appear to render this existing building structure as a life safety hazard and could collapse upon adjacent people and property," wrote Charles L. Bowman, a professional engineer with the firm.
The owners of the building commissioned their own report, and brought in Kernersville professional engineer Larry L. Boozer to assess the building and recommend a plan for shoring.
"Our engineer's report definitely says the structure is sound," McElrath told members of the preservation commission. "When the roof collapsed it shored up the building from the inside."
Lee Burnette, the city's planning and development director, publicly rebutted McElrath's statement.
Later, McElrath acknowledged that the report does not directly state the building is structurally sound, but cited a paragraph about its condition in support of that argument.
"Exterior walls given the age (approximately 90 years) are in surprisingly good condition," the letter states. "Horizontal cracks which indicate out of plane excessive bending stress are not present. Additionally, 'stair step' cracking at wall base which indicates settlement issues is not present. A large vertical crack was observed on the east wall at the alcove area. The crack in my opinion is due to shrinkage and thermal expansion and is not a significant structural issue."
The city submitted an affidavit by City Project Executive Director Wendy Fuscoe as evidence that the owners have not demonstrated good faith to find ways to save the building, including by selling it to someone who can afford to shore it up to prevent further damage.
Fuscoe stated in the affidavit that an unidentified investor met with her, then-Mayor Becky Smothers and city council members in November 2009 to discuss ways to redevelop the Kilby Hotel and that later the investor approached the owners. The building was owned by Burnie McElrath and her brother, William J. McElrath, at the time. Fuscoe said that while "Joe" McElrath "was eager to sell, Burnie was not. The deal did not go forward, and interest in other redevelopment projects on Washington Street stopped."
Burnie McElrath told members of the preservation commission that redevelopment of her family's hotel has been hampered by an ongoing dispute by her brother, explaining, "For lack of a better word, family issues got involved."
Burnie McElrath said she rejected the proposed sale in 2009 because the same investor had attempted to buy the property from her brother a year earlier without her knowledge.
"I had a bad taste in my mouth," she said. "It was illegal. It was really inappropriate. When you're going to buy something you find out who the owners are. You don't just get ready to write a check without finding out who the owners are. I mean, come on. You know how women gossip in a beauty shop? That's how my daughter found out."
"I've never really wanted to sell the hotel because, like Mr. Davis said, the heritage for my family and the heritage for the black community. If I was to sell it, no one would go back in there and keep the history alive. The historical part would be lost."
McElrath's brother eventually relinquished control of the building, and her daughter assumed part ownership.
The Washington Street area is listed as a National Register District. The Kilby Hotel, along with an adjacent building, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Buford asked Burnette what argument the city would have for maintaining Washington Street as a historic district if the Kilby Hotel was torn down.
"That becomes a question," Burnette acknowledged.
An overview of the Kilby Hotel from the city's 2010 nomination of Washington Street for the National Register of Historic Places suggests a rich and colorful history.
"The Kilby Hotel was named after Nannie and John Kilby, who came to High Point to start their lives together in the 1890s," the item reads. "The couple was an early investor in High Point real estate, as they built the hotel and recreation hall for blacks in High Point, which was then operated under Jim Crow laws. Shops were on the first floor, and the nightclub next to the hotel showcased jazz legends like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald."
Vice Chairman Jerry Nix said what makes the Kilby Hotel unique is that a black woman built and operated it in an era when that was uncommon. He said he recognizes that the building is a safety hazard, but said there are numerous examples of schools burning and then being gutted and completely rehabbed.
"I really think if the public knew there was a chance something could be done to save it, they would get behind this," he said.