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Architect unveils preservation plans for historic home

Deacons and elders at First Presbyterian Church in South Boston got a look at an architect’s proposed adaptive reuse of the Lawson-Johnston house:  new construction, additions to the historic church and adaptive use of the two-story brick structure located adjacent to the church.

Greg Rutledge, AIA historic preservation architect for Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co., unveiled the architectural plans Monday evening at the church.

At the conclusion of that meeting, church leaders took no official action on the fate of the Lawson-Johnston House which is located in the historic district of downtown South Boston.

Dr. Russell Lee, pastor of the church, said Tuesday the elders plan to meet at a later date to decide what they will do with the property and the two-story brick house which the congregation voted earlier this year to purchase for $191,000.

“It was not a night to make decisions. We were there to gather information,” Lee said of the Monday night presentation. “The session was thankful for the presentation made by Greg Rutledge and for the information he provided and will make its decision at a later date.”

Lee expressed pleasure that Rutledge used the long-range plan information that the church provided him as part of his proposal.

Halifax County Historical Society members, joined by other area residents as well as area preservationists, are pressuring the church to save the historic house on North Main Street from future demolition.

When the church bought the property this fall, the church’s pastor said the majority of those voting wanted to buy the property so the church would have space to expand in the future.

However, the congregation agreed to allow time for concerned individuals and groups to retain an architect to evaluate the structure and make recommendations to the church committee for renovating the historic home.

On Monday evening, Rutledge showed a joint meeting of the church’s nine elders and deacons how he envisions the church can use the historic home should they decide to preserve it.

“My goal was to have an informative discussion with the church about the historic and architectural importance of the house, its current condition, and help the church understand the integrity of the house is very much intact, and the potential for its continued use as an asset to the church, and ultimately the community, is invaluable,” he said.

“The key is to not act in haste.  It is essential to understand the resources that you have, understand the needs of the growing church, and develop a plan and a vision for the future.  Then, synthesize all that information into a long-term master plan for growth, renovation and additions that considers the use of the property and compatible uses that are a hand-in-glove fit for the Lawson-Johnston House,” the architect added. 

With “very helpful information” provided by the church, Rutledge said he explored several concepts for adaptive reuse of the house, but he declined to estimate the total cost of the restoration project.

Realizing that further exploration is definitely needed to develop the concept, one scheme that seemed to respond to the needs of the church was a concept that would join the house and the church with a very reserved piece of infill construction. 

Rutledge explained the infill construction would house the footprint of a fellowship hall that could not be accommodated in either of the historic structures. 

Other spaces and uses could be accommodated in renovated areas of the church and the Lawson-Johnston House, Rutledge said.   

Although not fully fledged out, the idea is for both the house and the church to retain their historic identities and integrity and not be overwhelmed by an addition. 

The character of the 800 block of Main Street would essentially remain unchanged, according to the plans, with both historic structures benefiting from continued use, he pointed out.

As an outsider to the Town of South Boston, but a regular visitor for 10 years, Rutledge said he has seen how the preservation of historic resources has benefited this community. 

“From our initial efforts planning for the restoration of The Prizery through its completion, I have seen a transformation along Main Street that would be the envy of many small communities,” he added. 

Heritage Tourism has been increasing nationwide, and communities like South Boston, with their historic buildings intact and interesting historic districts where the buildings tell the unique history of this area, benefit the most from those tourism dollars. 

Also, new residents are drawn to communities that respect their past, have a sense of identity, and the feeling of continuity that towns such as South Boston have because of the concentration of historic buildings, he added. 

He described preservation of historic buildings as “a continuous challenge primarily because most folks don’t understand the importance of the historic resource or why these resources are important to protect maintain and preserve.”

He said he sees his job as a preservationist as also being an educator.

The architect said he began his career in historic preservation while attending the University of Tennessee School of Architecture in Knoxville. 

“Knoxville is my home town, and I lived on the north side of town in a historic area called Fountain City.  Fountain City had a collection of late Victorian and Classical Revival houses along Broadway unrivaled by any other town. 

“Unfortunately, the grandest was demolished to make way for a Target Store, which as of today, is a closed, vacant, big box on Broadway.

“Memories of the historic mansion known as Park Place have all but faded away, and the historic context of Fountain City changed forever.  

“At that point, I decided my architectural career would be dedicated to historic preservation and fortunately, at that time, the UT School of Architecture had a program in historic preservation.

“The loss of these pieces of our town’s historic fabric may seem inconsequential when one property is lost at a time.  However the loss of any structure that contributes to the integrity of a historic district, or is significant on its own right, forever changes the cultural fabric of our communities and diminishes our collective history,” Rutledge added.

The architect said he believes First Presbyterian Church has an opportunity before them to create a historically unique worship center for their congregation and in doing so benefit the community as a whole.