Old town Bluffton church could buy, tear down Graves House

cconley@islandpacket.comApril 22, 2012 

The Graves House in Bluffton is located at 85 Calhoun St., next to Bluffton United Methodist Church.

JAY KARR/THE ISLAND PACKET

  • Bluffton's Historic Preservation Commission has final authority to approve or deny plans that alter existing structures in the historic district.

    Among the criteia it uses to decide:

  • Consistency with the principles set forth in the Old Town Bluffton Master Plan.

  • Consistency with the surrounding neighborhood and preservation of the existing building's character and architecture.

  • For an application to demolish or alter the exterior architectural appearance, the commission considers, among other things, the historic, architectural and aesthetic features of the structure, the nature and character of the surrounding area and its importance to the town.

  • Built in 1908 by a ship's carpenter from Maine, the Graves House sits beneath ancient live oaks and palm trees on half an acre on Calhoun Street in Bluffton's Historic District.
  • The home's most recent occupant was Mary Graves, a World War II nurse whose uniform reportedly hung in a bedroom closet until last year.

    But the once stately house has been decaying since well before Graves died in 2009.

    Bluffton United Methodist Church has a contract to buy the property from the two men who bought it last year.

    The church wants to tear the house down the house and build a near-exact replica in its place that includes offices and more community space.

    The new structure would be "an homage to the Graves House, if you will," said William Court of Court Atkins Architects, a church member whose firm is handling the project. "It will be a new structure using as much of the salvageable, reclaimed materials as possible."

    The church will ask Bluffton's Historic Preservation Commission on May 2 for permission to tear down the house. The commission has final say on this and other proposals affecting properties in the historic district.

    BEYOND REPAIR?

    Michael Hahn and D. Bryan McClure Jr. bought the property in 2011 for about $170,000. At the time, Hahn said they planned to sell a small back lot and use the proceeds to convert the 1,934-square-foot structure into offices.

    But Hahn says he discovered serious structural flaws and termite and water damage after buying the house. A recent tour showed holes in the ceiling and floor, crumbling support pillars, rotting wood and other flaws. He says little of the original home would remain once the damaged parts were removed.

    "I understand preservation, but truly, what are they going to have left that's original to the house?" Hahn asked Friday."The columns are good and maybe the front door, but even that has broken glass."

    Developer Thomas Viljac became familiar with Graves and her home while restoring Seven Oaks, which is just across the street. He believes the house is uninhabitable.

    "I believe in preservation," he said Friday, "but I also believe there is a fine line ... [and] you have to make decisions."

    DANGEROUS PRECEDENT

    There are more than 80 properties in old town that are considered "contributing structures" to the historic district.

    While many have been restored, others that sit on valuable land are showing wear. Only the Church of the Cross is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Emmett McCracken, an antique shop owner, property developer and former mayor, worries losing the Graves House will set a precedent that guides decisions on other properties.

    "What concerns me is that demolition is an irrevocable process," he said.

    Maureen Richards, executive director of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society, said the group supports preserving the existing home.

    UNCERTAIN FUTURE

    It's not clear if the church would still be interested in the property if the preservation commission denies the request.

    Hahn and Court separately declined to address that question. Neither wanted to discuss a possible sale price.

    And if the sale does fall through?

    "Somebody will eventually come along and buy it," Hahn said.

    Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.

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