GREENVILLE - If they can pull it off, two developers and a state preservation group will achieve one of this state's most ambitious efforts ever to preserve a historic home.
The 1876 mansion at 1004 Augusta Road is one of this city's few surviving grand 19th century homes, a high-style Italian Renaissance home built by Jacob Cagle for William T. Wilkins, one of the Upstate's leading businessmen in his day.
The house, which sits on four prime acres near one of the city's busiest intersections, remains owned by the family, which no longer lives there and is mainly interested in selling for top dollar. And that involves demolishing the home, which isn't protected by the city ordinance.
The prospect of its demolition has galvanized city preservationists, who have teamed up with the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation to attempt a last-ditch effort to save it, an effort that needs to raise about $360,000 by April 1 to succeed.
"There is a sense of urgency," said Neil Wilson, who heads the real estate firm Realtylink and hopes to move the home to one of two nearby sites and undertake an extensive restoration to convert it into an office or home. "It's a little bit now or never."
The entire cost of moving the solid brick home, including moving utility lines, building a new foundation and securing the permits, will be about $720,000, and Wilson has committed to paying half.
Mike Bedenbaugh, executive director of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, said his group will try to raise the matching sum. He said the home is in excellent condition but is made of solid brick and weighs about 1,000 tons, or as much as 80 mobile homes.
"It's the most intact endangered structure I've ever seen," he said. "Even though it wasn't designed to be moved, it was designed and built to withstand being moved."
From manor to mortuary
The Wilkins house was built on the southern end of the city in a bucolic spot near a dairy farm.
It was one of several dozen grand homes that lined Augusta Road and formed a neighborhood known as Depot Green, said Kelly Odom, Greenville County's Historic Preservation Commissioner.
But as Augusta Road became a high traffic thoroughfare, its residential character gave way to commercial development. The Wilkins house already has spent more time as a business than it ever did as a home. When Wilkins' widow Harriet died in 1933, her heirs kept the property but leased it for decades to Jones Mortuary, a business that remained there until about 1995.
After that, the house became a gift shop and then an event space known as Augusta Manor, which moved out last month.
Wilson said he looked at buying the property as a grocery store site and planned to move the home, but that deal didn't work out. Then another developer, Dan Simmons, moved in and planned to convert the property into a 102-bed nursing facility.
Bedenbaugh said Simmons' cooperation has been crucial, adding, "He is bending over backward."
Simmons already has sold Wilson the mansion's unique chandeliers, which were designed to be lit by both electricity and gas. They have been removed and stored in a protective place and will be reinstalled once the house is moved.
"What's unusual from the Palmetto Trust's perspective is having such an amazing cooperation between the developer and a willing recipient," Bedenbaugh said.
'A historic event'
Currently, a small sign stands in the Wilkins home's sprawling front yard, warning that demolition is imminent.
Bedenbaugh said he hopes to raise the $360,000 by April 1, and that will set in motion a weeks-long effort to prepare the massive home for moving. The mortuary expanded the home over time to about 10,000 square feet, but only the original structure, about 5,000 square feet, will be moved. The move itself could take place in May to a site a few blocks away.
"But we've got a long way to go, and we need as many people as possible who care about this stuff to help," he added.
In return for the Palmetto Trust's help with the moving cost, Wilson has agreed to restore the property according to national historic standards - and to give the trust an easement on it so it never will be threatened with demolition again.
The possible loss of one of the city's grandest homes has created buzz in the town, and Wilson said many seem pleased that he might be able to save it.
"I've gotten several great voice messages from friends and people I haven't met before," he said.
Unlike Charleston, which has had an active historic preservation movement for a century, Greenville is just beginning to get in the game. Wilson, who lives nearby, said he has been inspired by what preservationists have accomplished in Charleston and Savannah.
"Unfortunately, we haven't done such a great job in Greenville, but hopefully that will change," he added.
Odom said the change already is underway, as the Wilkins house effort has raised public awareness and could lead to a new city landmark district to prevent other grand structures from ever being threatened with a similar fate.
"If we move this home," Odom said, "it will be a historic event in and of itself."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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