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Just in time
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The two-story house at 539 E. Congress St. has seen better days.

The structure on Washington Square looks worn and run down. The paint is nearly gone from its outside walls, but that is about to change.

Built in 1854, the house recently was threatened with demolition. Quick action by the Historic Savannah Foundation saved it from that fate.

Even while celebrating, foundation members worry that a loophole in city demolition laws threatens other historic structures. “Historic Savannah really wants to raise awareness of the current demolition clause,” says Zelda Tenenbaum, president of the board of the Historic Savannah Foundation.

“Our Landmark District brings many tourists to town,” Tenenbaum says. “We want to save every building we can.

“The Historic Savannah Foundation remains committed to protecting historic buildings and the integrity of our neighborhoods,” she says. “This house could easily have joined the list of historic structures that have been lost to the wrecking ball.”

The city’s historic preservation laws were written in 1968. Currently, they allow a 12-month delay on building demolitions, after which an owner can tear a structure down.

“This loophole applies to each and every building in the Landmark District, even to such buildings as the Davenport House and the Owens-Thomas House,” says Mark C. McDonald, executive director of the Historic Savannah Foundation.

The Savannah City Council has the power to change the law, and foundation members plan to take their appeal to city officials. McDonald says that recent business reports show that heritage tourism generated more than $1 billion last year.

“Saving this house is not only important to our cultural heritage, but to our local economy,” McDonald says. “Year after year, heritage tourism rivals the port as the leading economic force in the city.”

In addition to boosting tourism, housing rehabilitation creates jobs and economic activity, both locally and nationwide.

Savannah is unique in that its National Landmark District covers 2.2 square miles and holds more than 2,000 historically significant buildings. The city has more than a dozen National Register districts and sites.

A cooperative spirit among all parties involved helped the foundation save the Congress Street house, Tenenbaum says. “Saving this 1854 house required perseverance and cooperation with our community partners,” she says. “Now we are asking our partners with the city of Savannah to close the loophole in the ordinance.”

The owner of the house, L.E. Wells, agreed to swap it for a lot at 116 E. Taylor St. on Calhoun Square. The owner of that lot, Rick McLennan, agreed to sell it to the foundation. “It is a vacant lot that has never been built on,” McDonald says.

A $100,000 donation from the Savannah Downtown Courtyard by Marriott was used to purchase the lot. The foundation will sell the house to someone who agrees to rehabilitate it, and is willing to ensure that the house will be preserved by attaching protective deed covenants.

The money gained from the sale of the house will be used to purchase another endangered historic building in the city. The program sustains itself from revolving funds.

The Historic Savannah Foundation was formed in 1955 by a group of seven women who were determined to save the Davenport House from demolition. They raised $22,500 to buy the house before it could be torn down for a parking lot, and today it is a noted house museum.

The foundation’s revolving fund was established in 1959 to raise donations to buy endangered properties. In addition to buying and selling historic properties, the foundation retains protective covenants on them to ensure their continued preservation.

“The revolving fund is responsible for saving many buildings,” McDonald says. “Without it, so many buildings that were saved could have slipped through the cracks.”

The Congress Street house was one of those that nearly was destroyed. “It had an owner who really wanted to build a new building,” McDonald says. “He had obtained a demolition permit. Through an oversight, the house was not on the city’s list of historic buildings.”

The city has added to the list of historic buildings since the owner originally obtained the demolition permit. “When he sought to renew his demolition permit, he was told he would have to go before the Historic Review Board,” McDonald says.

At that point, the Historic Savannah Foundation was notified about the house, and quickly became involved. Negotiations continued down to the wire.

“Mr. Wells signed a deed to the Historic Savannah Foundation and we signed a deed to the lot on Taylor Street,” McDonald says. “We didn’t know it was going to happen until yesterday about noon.”

One of the delays came about because of a lack of money. “The board was asking, ‘Where can we get the money?’” McDonald says.

Then came the Marriott donation. “The owner said he had had a very successful year in Savannah, and wanted to help the community as a way to thank his employees,” McDonald says.

“We were ecstatic,” he says. “It did come at a significant time for us. We are asking other hotels in Savannah to offer the same kind of largesse.”

The house on Congress Street was built in a simple side-hallway style. Many of its original features and details are still intact, and the house has the potential to become an architectural jewel like its neighbors.

“The city of Savannah was created in 1788,” says Hugh Golson, revolving fund chair for the Historic Savannah Foundation. “Two new wards were added in 1790. The cow pastures of colonial times gave way to squares.”

One of the squares was named Washington Square in 1791. “It was named in honor of the first president, who visited the city that year,” Golson says.

Washington Square was home to mariners, laborers and railroad workers, Golson says. The first owner of the Congress Street house was a ship’s carpenter, he says.

“We do have evidence of a structure there dating to 1810,” Golson says. “It may be a part of this structure.”

The original owner sold the house to another ship’s carpenter. It eventually became the home of Robert O’Keefe, a city policeman. “The O’Keefes augmented their income by taking in boarders,” Golson says.

One of those boarders would later buy the house. “This house is reflective of the eclectic history of the neighborhood,” Golson says. “It is a prime example of the Irish in Savannah.”

Washington Square has retained many of its original buildings. “The devastating fires of 1796 and 1820 never made it to Washington Square,” Golson says. “This area contains some of the oldest houses in Savannah.”

Yet even the oldest houses are endangered if the demolitions laws are not changed, Golson says. “Any historic structure in Savannah can be demolished after a wait of one year,” he says. “We cannot afford to lose our heritage and our burgeoning economy.”

A property qualifies for the revolving fund program if it is endangered, significant historically, obtainable from the owner and marketable. Properties are acquired through donations, options to purchase and fee simple purchases.

Negotiations often go to the 11th hour, McDonald says. Once the purchase is completed, the foundation immediately puts the property up for sale.

“We don’t do any work to the building,” McDonald says. “We simply put it up for sale the way it is. It does come with a set of plans.”

The Congress Street house has such a set of plans, including the suggested removal of an addition to the house. “The first thing people usually added on to a house was a bathroom,” McDonald says. “This house has an extension. We highly recommend that it be removed from the house.”

Every house that is saved comes with challenges. When McDonald went to open the house, he discovered it had an illegal boarder.

“A man was living in the house,” he says. “We ran him out.”

“There is almost always a solution for seemingly impossible preservation crises,” McDonald says. “If people will work together and consider alternatives, virtually every historic site can be saved and put to productive use.”