Can house be saved? Officials still hopeful

Posted: August 23, 2013

The Winchester Star

The Aulick house, now owned by Martin Gavis, in a circa 1904 photo included in a Winchester Evening Star publication. The Aulick family is standing in front of the house.
The Gavis house at the intersection of South Braddock and Leicester Streets in Winchester as it looks now. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — Courtroom developments last week left local and state preservation officials hopeful that an architecturally significant house in the city can be saved from demolition.

But both remain concerned that Martin and Claudette Gavis’s home at 414 S. Braddock St. could wind up becoming rubble, with the city demolishing the structure because it’s a public health hazard.

An expected hearing in the city’s efforts to gain court authorization to inspect the home and potentially raze part or all of it was continued last Thursday when Phillip S. Griffin II, who is representing Gavis, said his client would allow engineers to perform a complete inspection.

He also said Gavis has listed the property for sale with a real estate agent. The asking price is $1.125 million.

“Allowing the engineers in definitely is a step in the right direction, but the asking price just is not realistic,” said John Barker, president of Preservation of Historic Winchester (PHW). “Still, I want to be encouraging.

“If somebody wants to come along and pay $1 million for it, so be it, but I don’t think that’s realistic.”

Longtime concern

The Gavis house has been a source of concern for city officials for years. In 1984, a boy released from city custody set the house on fire, and some damage from that blaze still hasn’t been repaired.

The city’s efforts related to the structure intensified after a 100-square-foot section of the home’s north wall collapsed in March. That precipitated a series of decisions by city officials and boards that led to City Council’s July vote that labeled the house a public nuisance.

The house — built in 1881 by the Aulick family — is the only original, intact example of Second Empire architecture remaining in Winchester. Its dilapidated condition and spot-blight abatement efforts launched by the city prompted Preservation Virginia to place it on its 2010 list of the state’s most endangered historic sites.

Louis Malon, director of preservation services for the state organization, said some properties that make the endangered list are saved, but not all of them.

“These buildings are resilient,” he said, “but they don’t stand forever.”

Griffin and/or Paul Thomson, a paralegal in Griffin’s practice who has historic renovation experience, contacted the state and local preservation groups about the Gavis house after he became a client.

Barker and Malon said that to their knowledge, Gavis hadn’t sought their assistance previously. Barker said former PHW President Frank Wright tried to talk with Gavis about the home before but was turned away.

Malon agreed with Barker that allowing multiple engineers to do a thorough examination of the home — including removing some drywall to see the interior condition of certain walls — is an important step.

Griffin said he and City Attorney Tony Williams are working to schedule a time that two engineering firms representing the city, one representing Gavis and city building officials can meet to perform the inspection. That likely will occur between Labor Day on Sept. 2 and Sept. 12.

“If somebody were interested in purchasing the place,” Barker said, “they’re going to want to see a report like that.”

Price too high?

But the preservationists agreed that the asking price could deter potential buyers.

City real estate records show that the 0.96-acre property is assessed at $379,800, which includes a second building on the property at 410 S. Braddock St. that houses a dance studio. The list price is nearly three times that amount.

When they met with PHW officials last month, Barker said Griffin and Thomson indicated that Gavis would be seeking about $1 million for the property. Their response was that the price was not realistic.

As the vice president of OakCrest Builders, Barker leads the company’s historic renovation work. Based on what he’s seen and read, he estimated that a complete renovation of the Gavis house could cost as much as $1 million.

Malon said he saw the house in 2011, and while admitting he doesn’t know the local real estate market, he considered the asking price “exorbitant.”

Still, he viewed the fact that it’s listed as a good sign.

“I take that as a positive signal that he understands that maybe he’s not the person to take care of [the house] going forward,” Malon said, “that it needs to be someone else.”

Griffin said the asking price is considered a “starting point,” but added that certain factors should be considered.

The housing market still hasn’t recovered from the recent recession, he said, and recent sales show that prices are improving.

He also said it’s “a unique property with unique architecture in a prime location on a major street on a major entranceway to the city. We think all that makes it unique and more valuable.”

The prospect of helping finance a renovation with historic tax credits also shouldn’t be discounted, Griffin said.

An owner could receive a dollar-for-dollar state tax break for 25 percent of eligible expenses if he opted to live in the home. An additional 20 percent federal tax break could be leveraged if it were converted to commercial use.

Owner’s responsibility

While the preservation officials can provide guidance regarding ways to save the house and advocate for such efforts, both Barker and Malon said funds aren’t available from their groups to aid restoration projects.

Barker said PHW can’t afford to buy and restore it, either.

“We can’t do anything,” he said, noting that multiple preservation officials — himself included — turned out in July to urge City Council not to declare the house a nuisance but Gavis didn’t. “This is the responsibility of the homeowner.

“We can beat the drums and say the place needs to be saved, but there’s nothing PHW can do without the homeowner deciding he wants to do it.”

Griffin has said the Gavis house represents a preservation issue, but Barker has a different view. He said it’s a home maintenance matter, and he doesn’t blame the city for stepping in to resolve the safety problems it presents.

“It happens to be a fantastic house that’s crying for preservation,” he said, “but the homeowner needs to maintain his property.”

Because of the frustrations compounded over years of trying to get Gavis to fix the house, Barker said he doesn’t think merely putting the house on the market will be enough to save it even temporarily. Having it for sale won’t make it safe, and it could be on the market for some time.

Griffin said he thinks city officials would rather see the home preserved than demolished. He added that the upcoming inspection might resolve safety concerns because he doesn’t think the home is as hazardous as the city claims.

“Once we all have the same set of information,” he said, “I think both the city and Mr. Gavis might have a different path once we hit the fork in the road.”

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com