Monday, July 19, 2004

Historic home appears doomed for demolition

By Travis Gettys
Enquirer contributor

NEWPORT - Orange daylilies and black-eyed Susans bloom among tangled weeds in the front yard of the house at 647 Nelson Place, where a 10-year-old Batavia boy died in a New Year's Eve fire more than a year ago.

Rain-warped particle board covers the burned-out windows and doors, and pigeons roost under the collapsed roof of the three-story home, which remains relatively unchanged since Henry Mario Romano Jr. was killed in a Dec. 31, 2002, blaze while visiting his aunt and uncle.

A next-door neighbor, Jennifer Doering, purchased the house in April from Antonio and Eugenia Zambrano, who moved to Florida shortly after the fire.

They had done little to change the status of the historic home they'd spent almost two years rehabbing.

Some residents in Newport's East Row neighborhood hoped Doering would sell the house to someone who planned to restore it to its original condition, but she said that isn't practical and has applied for a permit to demolish the brick-and-wood structure.

"The cost is mind-boggling for basic renovation, and that does not include engineering costs, architectural fees or mold removal," said Doering, citing a $628,000 bid the Zambranos received after the blaze.

Living next door to the house has been difficult, Doering said, because it is an eyesore and a possible safety hazard, with charred bricks threatening to fall and pigeon droppings covering most flat surfaces.

Doering reached an agreement with the Zambranos to buy the house if she received permission from the city to demolish it.

She took the first step in the process by applying Feb. 11 for a certificate of appropriateness, which is necessary to undertake any exterior alterations to buildings in the city's historic preservation district, where the house is located.

Newport's historic preservation committee approved the application April 28, and Doering bought the house for $40,000.

Members of the East Row Historic Foundation, an all-volunteer neighborhood association, are concerned that the decision could not be appealed by the city, and they fear more buildings could be doomed if current procedures remain.

"The process is flawed," said Rebecca Walker Drouhard, chair of the group's historic preservation committee.

"The city, as a representative of all citizens of Newport, should be able to appeal a board's decision," she added.

An engineer hired by the neighborhood association said the building was structurally sound, and Drouhard said the group demonstrated that the standard of financial hardship necessary to demolish the house had not been met.

"The preservation committee board's decision was counter to the law and facts," Drouhard said.

City officials set a June 28 deadline for a buyer to come forward before approving demolition plans, and members of the East Row Historic Foundation offered to market the house for Doering.

Members of the group, with the help of the city's historic preservation board, listed the house for sale on the This Old House Web site and through the Kentucky Trust for Historic Preservation E-mails were sent to several architecture firms with a list price of $50,000, based on Doering's purchase price and other associated costs.

The group says it found two potential buyers, and the city granted a one-week extension to the deadline late last month because one of the buyers could not look at the house until June 30.

Doering showed the house simultaneously to both, and gave the prospective buyers 24 hours to make an offer, for which she asked $75,000 based on a real estate agent's recommendation, and each declined to do so.

City commissioners issued Doering a certificate of appropriateness July 12, and she asked O'Rourke Wrecking Co. to apply for a demolition permit.

"I could keep extending this, and extending this, and extending this," said Doering, who lived in her home for only four months before the fatal fire, which officials blamed on faulty wiring in the basement.

"I'm not really interested in living next door to this house," she said.

Some members of the neighborhood association question whether she was seriously interested in selling the house.

"After we found two buyers, her subsequent actions indicated she had second thoughts," Drouhard said.

Doering plans to turn the lot into a green space or a garden, but Drouhard said that would leave a gaping hole in the densely packed streetscape.

"It's like a smile with a missing tooth," Drouhard said.

Doering said she considered selling her house and moving after the fire, but she fears the building next door will hurt the property value of the home she bought in June 2002.

"When I bought this house I had no intention of even being in this position," Doering said.

"It's not fun living next to that house," she said.

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