When I was a student at Centre College, I focused more on English literature (and some other less noble and spirited pursuits) than the landscape around me. But I remember a stark two-story brick house, near Duke’s Laundry on South Fourth Street (for $5, they would wash, dry, and fold an overflowing basket of laundry). A small trailer park clustered around it, and a water tower cast its shadow on the gable roof. The house, with its Dorico portico, was incongruous in its setting.
When I read about the application for demolition for the Greek Revival dwelling, I groaned – but I wasn’t altogether surprised. Its fate was likely sealed years ago, as the land around it was parceled off, changed use, and owner occupancy of the central passage, double pile dwelling was but a memory. The indignity of what was once such an impressive dwelling being razed to make way for self-storage units is – well – staggering.
Constructed in the mid-1840s, the dwelling was designed and built by Robert Russell, Jr., a regional builder/architect in the same vein as John McMurtry (though not, perhaps, as imaginative or well-known). Russel belonged to a family of builders, and his specialty seems to be large brick houses with columns, including Old Centre at my alma mater and the McClure-Barbee House, located north of the Fisher-Byington House on Fourth Street.
During my stop at the house in 2014, I noticed that the ell (an addition extending to to the rear of the main block of the house) was in pretty bad condition, but the house appeared solid. The oft-cited adage “they don’t built them like they used to” could be well applied in this case. I somewhat doubt that $1 million would be the price to address the reported structural and engineering repairs, but too often in cases like this, both sides can adjust the numbers to fit their argument. And many engineers don’t have experience working with 1840s buildings.
I didn’t venture inside, but I imagine there has been moisture infiltration over the years, though all of the mortar joints on the house looked solid, and there was no obvious damage to the asphalt shingle roof. No, I think the real issue is perception, the immediate environment, and the complacency which allowed the property to advance to this stage. Property rights are paramount in the Commonwealth, and despite its architectural heritage and notable residents, the fate of the Fisher-Byington House was sealed years and years ago.
I cross my fingers with other lovers of history and preservation when I hear gloomy news like this – but my practical side knows that some battles simply can’t be won. Would an adaptive reuse of this still lovely house be possible? Of course! I can see the a mixed-use future for the Fsher-Byington House – an office on the first floor, and an apartment (with large, light-filled rooms) on the second. But there has to be a will and the matching funds to make that happen.
My best hope is that the Danville Planning and Zoning Commission, should they grant the demolition permit, will require the owner to complete state-level documentation, by a qualified preservation professional (including measured drawings and development of a historic context for the house and surrounding area) on the building. And that there will be no next time for Danville – that should this sad story play out the way it seems likely to, that residents and leaders will realize that this community deserves more than additional self-storage buildings. My mother always said I decided to go to Centre because of the amazing old homes I saw on the way there and back – a landscape that has inspired me ever since. Self-storage buildings? They don’t rate at all on the inspiration scale. And Danville should demand better.