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Lawson-Johnston House free for taking

The historic Lawson-Johnston house is free for the taking to any individual or group willing to relocate the house.

If no credible offer is accepted, First Presbyterian Church plans to proceed with demolition of the historic structure located adjacent to the church on North Main Street.

That was the decision reached Monday night by the Session of First Presbyterian Church.

The nine-member Session, along with three new oncoming members, notified members of the church’s intentions in letters mailed out on Wednesday.

The official resolution adopted by Session members states:

“The First Presybterian Church of South Boston, Virginia, will provide the Lawson-Johnston House, located at 818 North Main Street, as a gift to any individual or group willing to relocate the house for the purpose of renovation and/or restoration. The gift will include a negotiated contract and a refundable good faith deposit secured by April 15, 2011, with required relocation by Dec. 31, 2011. If no credible offer is accepted by April 15, 2011. First Presbyterian Church will proceed with salvage and demolition.”
Paul Nichols, elder and spokesman for the group making the controversial decision, explained the Session of Elders consists of nine members, with three going off the group and three new members coming on.

“We believed this matter was important, so all 12, including those going off the membership of the session, were present at Monday’s meeting,” he explained.

“Each member of the Session came to the meeting very aware of the anxiety that this decision has created within the church and among the community,” the letter to members stated.

In September the church voted to purchase the stately Queen Ann structure located in the historic district on North Main Street for $191,000 from Chad Elliott with an eye on demolishing the building and using the property for expansion purposes.

However, members of the Halifax County Historical Society voiced opposition to demolition of the house and began a communitywide campaign to save the historic structure.

Built by Robert W. Lawson in 1909, the house later became the childhood home of the late South Boston dentist Dr. Lewis Johnston, thus the property became known as the Lawson-Johnston house.

Last month the deacons and elders of the church got a look at an architect’s proposed adaptive use of the historic Lawson-Johnston house, including new construction, additions to the historic church and adaptive use of the two-story brick structure located adjacent to the church on North Main Street.

Cost estimates for renovation and upkeep of the house ran conservatively to nearly $540,000 and does not include the $190,000 the church paid for the property, according to the letter church members received on Thursday.

Ideas presented by Greg Rutledge, AIA historic preservation architect for Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co, for a building to join the church to the house, a totally separate project, are estimated to cost a minimum of $770,000.

“This would bring the total investment on the part of the church to $1,500,000,” the letter said.

“Our prayer was that we would know God’s will through a spirit of unity among the Session members as we made the decision. That prayer was answered as we worked through the decision process,” it continued.

In its deliberation process, the Session members concluded the historic restoration of the house is not the first priority for ministry of the church.

“As we purchased the property for future ministry expansion, the costs involved in restoration and upkeep of the building are beyond the financial means of the congregation,” the letter stated.

Cognizant of the historic nature of the property and its place in the community, the Session said such an issue is frequently solved by the church giving the structure to an entity that moves it to another location.

“It is our hope that an appropriate individual or organization will come forth to claim the offer as quickly as persons responded to the offer to make recommendations for restoration. Historic organizations are created for just such purposes and equipped with tax incentives and grant options, which are not available to our church because of our non-profit status, that make them much better prepared to support the unique character of this building,” the letter continued.

Attempts to contact Halifax County Historical Society President Barbara Bass on Thursday to ascertain whether that society would be interested in moving the Lawson-Johnston house to another location were unsuccessful.

Historical Society member Carol Foster, who spearheaded the community campaign to save the Lawson-Johnston house, said, “We lost, but we won.”

Choking back tears, she added, “It makes me very sad.”

The Session’s letter further explained the foremost intent of the purchase of the property has been “to expand the ministry of the church and to demonstrate the love that God has for us.

“Expanding our facilities in ways beyond the capability of the Lawson-Johnston House will allow us to reach even more people with the Good News of the Gospel. While we share the concern for the preservation of our local history and architecture, our mission as a church is to minister to those in need with the love of Christ,” the letter concluded.