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Historic South Boston home sits on shaky ground

Dr. Russell Lee and congregation of First Presbyterian Church in South Boston currently are praying for God’s leadership on what must happen after the church purchases one of South Boston’s oldest homes, a stately Queen Ann structure adjacent to the church that dates back to 1909.

The church voted earlier this month to purchase the two-story brick house for $191,000 from present owner Chad Elliott with a closing date set for Nov. 1, Lee said.

The historic home built by Robert W. Lawson later became the childhood home of the late South Boston physician Dr. Lewis Johnston, thus the property became known as the Lawson-Johnston house.

Many Lawson family members continue to be part of the First Presbyterian congregation, according to Pastor Lee.

When the vote was taken last Sunday to purchase the house, which is part of the North Main Street historic district and recognized by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Lee said the majority of those voting agreed to buy the property so the church would have space to expand in the future.

“That’s the only direction the church has for future expansion,” Lee said, adding the committee is looking at the purchase as a “long-term investment.”

“We knew when we voted to purchase it there were only two options for the property – demolition of the house to build there in the future or renovating it.”

The pastor said he views this as a “very important issue for our congregation – a historic issue and a future issue.

“We are in prayer that our congregation can work through and be a positive witness to the community. We are sure that this will happen and thank the community for their prayers and thoughts,” he continued.

Lee said although the church has no immediate plans for the property, “the good news is we are purchasing the property.”
He said the congregation has agreed to look into what it will take to preserve the Lawson-Johnston house that currently is in poor condition.

Prior to voting to purchase the property, Lee said the committee, reported the exterior needs “a good bit of work,” and “structural issues exist with the house with water coming in the roof, wood damage, the front porch is slipping away from the structure, and there’s rot in the facia.

The committee recommended that the building be demolished.

“There’s a significant amount of damage, and it is quite a bit in need of repair,” Lee said.

Although the church has no immediate plans for the property, the pastor said as part of the vote on Sunday, the church approved an amendment allowing a 30-day window for a concerned individual or group to retain an architect to evaluate the structure. Then 90 days will be allotted for those concerned to make renovation recommendations to the committee.

“That has happened,” he said on Friday, noting people interested in preserving the house have retained the services of an architect and will bring back to the committee renovation plans the congregation will consider.

Once the architectural review has been completed, Lee said the congregation will discuss the two options of whether to renovate or raze the Lawson-Johnston house.

“I think the best thing about looking at renovations is it shows we are listening to the family and community,” Lee added.

“This house has a lot of memories for people, and it is a struggle between memories and history and the future.”

Local historian Faye Tuck, who serves on the historical society committee preparing a book for publication on local historical architecture, said this week she hopes the church will find a way to preserve the Lawson-Johnston house which will be included in this publication.

“Let’s try to keep and preserve these wonderful old houses which our generation has enjoyed and admired all these years.

Let us all save them for generations that are growing up now. They will thank us someday for saving each house,” Tuck said.

Barbara Bass, president of the Halifax County Historical Society, issued a statement similar to Tuck’s on the church’s plans, urging “all owners of historic properties to respect and to preserve them, if at all possible.

“This house is a great example of Queen Anne style without outstanding architectural features.

“Though like many structures from the past, the house cannot be used as was before, there are always great possibilities.

Being innovative and working through the process, solutions can be found to continue to preserve a part of our history,” Bass said.

Lee said as his congregation works through this issue, he sees the main point as a combination of people and their faith.

In the end, “This will be a faith decision as well as a business decision,” he concluded.