Published first in The State Port Pilot, Southport, NC, Wednesday, April 8, 2021
Geared in hazmat suits, engineers, architects and leaders of the “Save the Hall, Y’all” project entered Southport’s old city hall for the first time since it was largely abandoned to determine whether converting the historic structure into an arts community center is possible.
The safe entry on March 12 was a milestone in the six-month feasibility study of the circa 1844 structure, which the City of Southport agreed to let Up Your Arts (UYA) pursue while it maintains ownership of the building. UYA’s end goal is to renovate the structure and lease it from the city.
From the visual inspection, there were no major, obvious structural issues.
Remediation Solutions set up fogging machines to render inert the airborne mold particles so photographers could enter, along with several other people who are contributing their skills to the project: Jon Henry, the owner of Long Beach Construction, is providing pro bono project management services; Richard Bandera of Bandera Architecture is creating technical drawings, free of charge; and Doug Jones, owner of WD Jones Engineering, PLLC is conducting the visual engineering survey of the ins and outs of the structure.
“The shared initial reaction by all parties involved was that it was going to be a great and successful project, and nothing we saw or encountered, prior to an in-depth analysis, seemed to deter our vision,” said John Keiffer, chair of the “Save the Hall, Y’all” initiative.
UYA is waiting on the written report from the structural engineer to confirm the renovation would be feasible.
However, it was clear the project would require a complete demolition of the interior. The inside of the building is overwhelmed by hazardous mold throughout both floors.
“It’s a bad situation in there,” said Don Simms, owner of Remediation Solutions, Inc. “It’s nothing to be played around with. It’s got to be remediated.”
If the project continues, Simms estimates it will take three to five months for a company to remediate the mold.
Some materials inside, such as the drywall, would need to be removed, properly bagged and disposed of, while other parts of the historic structure could be cleaned and saved. An inventory of furnishing and artwork would be taken to determine what is worth salvaging for donating, fundraising or reuse in the building.
During the recent entry, a bench from 1805 was removed. If it can be restored, the Southport Police Department will display it in their office.
“Anything that is removed like those benches has to be treated very, very carefully. They’re impregnated with mold,” Keiffer said.
Keiffer believes the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places more so because of its historic usage as a courthouse than its architecture; however, there are some features UYA would like to keep as part of the interior design: the inner staircase, which Keiffer suspects dates back to the 1850s; the wood plank ceilings; the tin ceiling in the chamber; and the wooden sash windows, which are historically significant due to age but are in bad shape and may need to be replaced with historic reproductions.
The memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the city ends May 15. Over the remaining weeks, UYA will wrap up several feasibility surveys; research on the building’s code and usage requirements; a review of Southport’s leases with other nonprofits; and drafts of budgets.
The official decision on whether to move forward should be made by mid-April. If UYA chooses to proceed, the nonprofit will likely present another six-month MOU to the aldermen for their consideration. It would outline plans to begin creating designs and approaching corporate sponsors.
The organization envisions the project escalating through a series of these six-month agreements, which are not legally binding but signal a contract is imminent.
By the end of the next MOU, UYA will incorporate a board of trustees to assume control of the project and be the legal entity that cuts the major contracts.
The project is estimated to take two-and-a-half years with the buildout, hiring of staff and furnishing all completed in the last year. It is expected to cost $2 million and be funded through grants, sponsors and donations. Once open, it would be self-sustaining through room rentals.
The plan includes: a venue for events, performances and public meetings; an outdoor sculpture garden with seating; studio spaces; an exhibition gallery in the wide hallway; a welcome foyer; a retail shop selling work by local art students; a cafe; and rooms for the use of community organizations.
Soon, the public will also be able to see inside the building, which has been vacant for more than four years through a virtual tour of the inside that will be published on upyourarts.org in the near future.