Historic Salisbury Foundation, churches launch revitalization effort in Chestnut Hill

  • Posted: Sunday, May 5, 2013 12:47 a.m.
Leaders of a task force initiating a revitalization of the Chestnut Hill neighborhood met Friday at the former parsonage of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. They include, from left, Ed Clement, the Rev. Rick Williams, Brian Davis, Barb Sorel, Jack Kepley, Doug Black and the Rev. Ed Harper.
Leaders of a task force initiating a revitalization of the Chestnut Hill neighborhood met Friday at the former parsonage of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. They include, from left, Ed Clement, the Rev. Rick Williams, Brian Davis, Barb Sorel, Jack Kepley, Doug Black and the Rev. Ed Harper.

SALISBURY — A scheduled demolition of houses at 812 and 814 S. Jackson St. gave everything a sense of urgency.

Bringing back historic Chestnut Hill

A task force led by Historic Salisbury Foundation and church leaders already has outlined some steps it wants to take in revitalizing the Chestnut Hill neighborhood. They include:

• Re-establish the historic name of “Chestnut Hill.”

• Place signs marking its boundaries.

• Gain support from other historic neighborhoods in Salisbury.

• Research the history of the area and its buildings.

• Take immediate steps to save and rehabilitate houses so they are lived in.

• Seek grants for emergency rehabilitations and a revolving fund for endangered historic properties.

• Seek organizations and individuals to buy and rehabilitate properties.

• Contact current owners and offer plans for assistance, including selling if desired.

• Organize for and request grants for cleaning up, painting and repairs.

• Bring residents together: Have neighborhood events, form a neighborhood organization, join the Historic Neighborhoods Alliance and start a neighborhood watch program.

Within a matter of weeks, a large task force formed and efforts have begun in earnest to revitalize the Chestnut Hill neighborhood just south of Salisbury’s downtown.

“This citizen effort is probably unprecedented in the history of Salisbury,” said preservationist Ed Clement, treasurer for Historic Salisbury Foundation, “as it brings together a wide variety of interests to encourage, assist and help organize this neighborhood.”

Clement said more than 30 people are part of the task force, already broken down into four subcommittees.

The players include the non-profit historic foundation, leaders of four historic churches in Chestnut Hill, real estate professionals, small investors, the city of Salisbury and bordering historic district neighborhoods such as Fulton Heights and the West Square.

Meanwhile, Historic Salisbury Foundation took a first step last week and bought options on the two South Jackson Street houses, which are now vacant.

Historic Salisbury Foundation Executive Director Brian Davis said the foundation will try to find buyers for the 1930s-era houses with hopes they become owner-occupied.

Davis said the asking prices will be far below the current tax values. As is the foundation’s policy, they also will be sold with covenants to ensure they retain their exterior character and are not demolished.

“A couple of weeks ago, those houses were history,” said Doug Black, who works for the foundation’s property committee. “This gave it the sense of urgency.”

The Chestnut Hill neighborhood, which includes the city-owned cemetery of the same name, extends roughly between South Main and South Fulton streets from Thomas Street to the cemetery.

South Jackson, South Church, McCubbins, South Main, Chestnut, Harrison and Johnson streets represent the main arteries.

In this area are four churches that have been the backbone to the neighborhood since its beginning: St. Paul’s Episcopal at 930 S. Main St.; Haven Evangelical Lutheran Church, 207 W. Harrison St.; Coburn Memorial United Methodist Church, 901 S. Church St.; and Stallings Memorial Baptist, 817 S. Main St.

Church leaders see a neighborhood revitalization as being crucial to their future congregational missions.

“We believe the primary salvation for the church is to seek, encourage and promote a restoration of the neighborhood and to recruit new members within the neighborhood,” said Jack Kepley, who belongs to Coburn United Methodist.

Kepley said Coburn, organized in 1890 once had a 700-member congregation in the late 1930s.

“Without a parking lot,” he emphasized.

“It was a neighborhood church and that is what it should seek to return to in the future,” Kepley added.

The Rev. Rick Williams, father at St. Paul’s Episcopal, said his church currently has about 40 active members, many of them elderly. Its spiritual mission and focus for the future has turned to the community around it, Williams said.

When the neighborhood was thriving, people walked to church, and that has to happen again, Williams said.

“That’s the vision St. Paul’s has,” he added.

Williams noted 2010 Census numbers showing more than 8,000 people — an ethnically diverse population — living within a 1-mile radius of St. Paul’s, founded in 1877.

The largest growth projections are within the Latino community, he added. But no matter who future parishioners are, they have to know the neighborhood is safe, well-lit, has good streets and sidewalks and is a good place to raise a family, Williams said.

Congregations in Chestnut Hill have been talking about the need to revitalize the neighborhood for several years. Williams said it was “divine coincidence” in recent weeks for Clement and Historic Salisbury Foundation to call everyone together.

Haven Lutheran was once the second largest Lutheran congregation in Rowan County. Now its active membership runs between 40 to 45, sometimes up to 50, the Rev. Ed Harper says.

While once Haven members asked, “Are we going to have to close our doors?” that concern has passed, Harper said. The focus now is on the community around them.

“Their dream is for the future,” Harper said. “We can’t get back to where we used to be. God has called us to new ways of ministry.”

Harper said the Chestnut Hill churches aren’t competing for members. Rather, they share common goals. He sees the possibility of the neighborhood churches joining together in offering things such as Vacation Bible School, outreach ministries and ecumenical councils.

Kepley said people who join the churches in the future will have to see them as part of their community.

“We need to make it important again,” he said.

Black said he could help the Chestnut Hill community establish a neighborhood watch program modeled closely after the one in nearby Fulton Heights, where he lives.

The task force also could assist residents in creating a neighborhood association and working with the city to address street lights and signs.

Barb Sorel, a vice president for HSF, already has begun an inventory of every property in Chestnut Hill. She is researching property histories through tax records, photographing their conditions and creating a folder for each one.

In looking at Sanborn maps from 1931, Sorel has noted “a lot of the properties aren’t there any more.” But she has been encouraged that at least half of the tax records she has pulled so far show homes lived in by their owners, not renters.

Sorel estimated the neighborhood has having roughly 150 properties. “It’s a big district,” she said. Other historic properties also are on a track toward being torn down in Chestnut Hill, and the task force has created a preliminary “blitz list” to identify structures most in danger.

Clement said the foundation can’t save every endangered property, but choosing key residences could go a long way in leading to other improvements.

Sorel added the neighborhood has some safety issues, among them, too much crime and drug activity.

In 2001, the city paid for a survey looking at potential historic districts. Chestnut Hill was named as one that probably would be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

Such a designation would benefit property owners on rehabilitation expenses by providing significant tax credits. National Register designation is not the same as living in a local historic district in that it does not regulate properties.

“Several commercial buildings in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood would be natural choices for rehabilitation using federal and state historic tax credits,” Davis said, “since up to 40 percent of the project costs could be eligible for reimbursement.”

HSF officials say Chestnut Hill is one of the earliest subdivisions in Salisbury. It grew out of the farm and large brick home of Samuel R. Harrison that was known as Chestnut Hill.

The house, torn down in the 1960s, sat a distance back from South Main Street on a significant amount of land owned by Harrison.

In 1892, the Dixie Land Co. purchased Harrison’s acreage and divided it into 103 lots. South Jackson Street and South Church Street were eventually extended and joined the new streets of Chestnut, Harrison and Johnson.

Principals in the Dixie Land Co. included Salisbury notables such as John Steele Henderson, the Rev. Francis Murdoch and Napoleon Bonaparte McCanless. A working-class neighborhood developed in Chestnut Hill.

Members of the task force realize the importance of the Chestnut Hill Cemetery to the neighborhood. It’s much like a park, with many walking and running paths, besides holding monuments memorializing some of Salisbury’s most famous residents.

The task force has met at least twice. Plans are developing to have a general meeting of residents in the neighborhood later this year.

“It’s an exciting beginning,” Clement said.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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