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On the Death of a Building
By Mike Watson
It has been said, "When an old person dies, a library burns down." This is a profound statement, containing volumes in one short, nine-word sentence. With the loss of any person, their collected knowledge goes with them. With the loss of an aged person, one who has lived through, experienced and seen so many events, great and small, their amassed knowledge is gone--unless there is a record of some type.
It is really no different for a structure. "If old houses could speak," is a term I often hear from those who appreciate old architecture of any era. The Sunday night fire at the historic home on Burkesville Street, known commonly as the Hurt-Foust House, which had been in the same family since the early 1890s, was the end of an era.
Yes, it was in a continually deteriorating state of repair that could have been arrested, at least to a degree, and thus preserved for our grandchildren to explore. The City of Columbia was able to purchase the property, sitting on just under eighteen acres, in town, less than a year ago. There were from the onset plans to turn this property into a park for the community. Far better than cookie-cutter houses that would have, perhaps, lasted a generation or two before being replaced by something new. The existing house, built in the early 1850s may have appeared crumbling, but the bones were solid; work was certainly needed to stabilize and move forth.
That help was quietly being arranged. The process to place the house and land on the National Register of Historical Places had already been instituted. Once a difficult process, this is now easier to accomplish with the general feeling, nationwide, of the importance of preservation of our common heritage. We were approached and encouraged to begin this process by someone in the preservation community outside Adair County; one who knew the significance of this site and the need to save what could be saved.
The clearing of the house was underway, with encouragement from the City and with aid from the local library, and history and genealogical groups. A small group of dedicated volunteers began work in early summer. Any and all items that remained that were deemed historically or culturally significant were being saved for possible display in what was hoped to be a museum or visitor center. The various rooms were assessed and were being cleared in the order of the potential importance of contents. These items were stored in a secure location to await conservation.
Vandals, vagrants, and 'treasure hunters' had ransacked this house regularly, entering through smashed windows, climbing and crawling, throwing and destroying each and every time. Even since the clean-up began in early June, each time the volunteers came there was evidence of new invasions. Each time some of the work already accomplished was reversed. We shall not even mention some of the 'things' left behind by those individuals.
Was the house salvageable? Yes, it was, perhaps not in its entirety, as the later addition in the back was nearly collapsing, but yes, the main or front part of the house was surprisingly stable. The front porch and the glassed-in upper porch were in sad shape, but could have been replaced during the renovation. The porch's instability made the whole structure look to be extremely bad, but it belied what lay behind it.
Ultimately, despite what has been rumored, there would have been little money expended by the City of Columbia in the rejuvenation of the Hurt House. I say this because there were those individuals and groups interested in the HISTORY of the site who had quietly promised to arrange for considerable funding for this anticipated work. This is all for naught at this point, as there is little left to conserve.
However, the dream of a walking park and more is still alive and well. There are a few garden-scape plans that are a possibility. One is to retain the existing foundation as it is, and the chimneys, once stabilized, outline the original rooms with brick or stone, fill the site with soil and plant each room with flowering plants, possibly with walkways. This is a fairly straightforward plan, with few materials needed and little funding after the initial preparation. And more ideas abound.
The burning of the Hurt-Foust House is a loss to this community and our region of Kentucky. Nothing was gained by its demise and great pleasure and tourist dollars could have been brought to town with its completion. But like the phoenix, it can rise from the ashes.
A deep sadness spread over the history-minded community with its loss. Also, those who had never paid much attention, or so they thought, now recall its prominence on Burkesville Street, and lament its passing. And to the Hurt-Foust family, we extend our condolences once again, on a bittersweet ending to an era, a long-loved site of many happy memories.
Speaking for myself, Mike Watson, 25 August 2020
This story was posted on 2020-08-27 08:00:13
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