Clock ticking on Blackmer House

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Jonathan Blackmer said bringing his historic house back to its former glory would be “astronomically expensive” ó upwards of $400,000 ó and he asked the Salisbury Historic Preservation Commission permission to tear it down Thursday.
“Let’s get on with it,” Blackmer said.
The commission, hamstrung by N.C. general statutes that give it little choice but to allow the demolition, approved a certificate of appropriateness for Blackmer’s request.
But the commission approval also delays demolition of the house at 112 S. Fulton St. for a period of 365 days ó the maximum period allowed under the statutory guidelines.
The grace period is designed to give the commission and community time to explore all options in possibly saving the house, the longtime Salisbury home of noted actors Sidney and Suzanne Blackmer.
The Historic Salisbury Foundation, neighbor Ed Norvell and fellow West Square Historic District residents Jon Planovsky and Robert Lambrecht entered strong testimony against the demolition.
“It seems to me that the property is more valuable with the structure remaining than with no structure at all,” Norvell said in a prepared letter. “…I believe the owner should either restore the house himself or sell it to someone who can restore it.”
Jack Thomson, director of Historic Salisbury Foundation, pushed for the 365-day delay that the law permits.
“In the past, the foundation has made two bonafide offers to purchase the property,” Thomson said. “It is willing to consider making one additional offer.”
The foundation would consider buying the property, make it stable and sell the “Fulton-Blackmer House” with protective covenants to a purchaser who would restore it for use as a primary residence.
Since a devastating fire in 1984, the house has deteriorated and been left vacant essentially for two decades.
A resident of Alexandria, Va., Jonathan Blackmer said he thinks he could make better use of the property by demolishing the house and keeping its garage, perhaps as a place to which he could visit or retire.
If the house were taken down, Blackmer said, he would ask the salvage contractor to remove rather than destroy the house’s timber, some of its fixtures and the brick that was of value.
Later in the commission hearing, after the pleas to save the house were read into the record, Blackmer asked for a chance to respond.
He called Norvell’s statement “a little over the top” and said he was not insensitive to the tragedy the destruction of historic buildings brings. He recalled that his family opposed the loss of houses on the corner of West Innes and South Fulton streets, which made way for construction of a savings and loan (today’s Citizens South Bank).
In fact, Blackmer said, he has offered to donate the house to Salisbury as long as it was kept a public structure with at least one room dedicated to the memory of his famous parents.
Blackmer has significant letters, posters and movies that could be part of a museum attraction, he suggested. He added that he could be given a life estate in the garage, where he would have a place to stay when he came back to Salisbury.
Blackmer mentioned that he could even be a docent for a Blackmer museum.
He challenged people in the community to come up with a plan to make a museum work and said he has talked about this idea for years without progress.
“I don’t think it’s out of the question to do that,” he said.
Otherwise, Blackmer said he can’t afford to restore it as a residence.
“I am prepared to have the lot cleared as a last resort,” he said.
Blackmer listed many of his actor father’s accomplishments on stage and in film. Sidney Blackmer had a role in the first significant film, “The Perils of Pauline” in 1914, and won a Tony in the Broadway production of “Come Back, Little Sheba.”
Jonathan Blackmer said he would even donate the Tony to a house museum.
Sidney Blackmer, who appeared in some 160 movies, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Suzanne Blackmer, his second wife, danced in the Ziegfield Follies and also performed on Broadway and in many movies.
Jonathan Blackmer gained an ownership interest in the house in 1999 and inherited the entire property after his mother’s death in 2004. Sidney Blackmer died in 1974.
Thomson read much of the house’s early history into the record.
“The house is one of the most important historic houses in Salisbury,” he said. “It is important due both to its architecture and its long history.”
The house dates back to 1821 when it was constructed by John Fulton. It was part of Salisbury Academy, used as a residence for young girls from out of town. The Josephus Hall House on South Jackson Street was another unit of the Salisbury Academy, and the houses are similar in design with their central halls and two large side rooms in front.
After the death of John Fulton in 1827, the city honored him by changing the name past his house from Academy Street to Fulton Street.
The house became a school again in 1851 under the guidance of 14 leaders, including John Ellis, who later became N.C. governor.
In 1848, William Overman, father of future U.S. Sen. Lee S. Overman, bought the property, followed by A.J. Mock in 1863.
Sidney Blackmer purchased the home from the Mock family in 1931.
Since the fire (Suzanne Blackmer had allowed her home’s insurance to lapse and could not afford to rebuild it), Historic Salisbury Foundation has paid for repairs several times to ensure its safety and “look forward to its eventual preservation.”
“Something needs to be done soon,” Thomson said, adding he thought the house can be saved.
Norvell said he and his neighbors are proud of the historic district and the Blackmer property is virtually the only house in the immediate vicinity that hasn’t been lovingly restored.
“In fact, for 24 years,” Norvell said, “it has stood as an eyesore on Fulton Street, one of Salisbury’s proudest streets.”
But he urged the commission to delay the request for demolition by 365 days. Norvell said one of his concerns is what Blackmer would do with the property once the structure is removed. Would he try to rezone the lot to a commercial use?
“There will be strong opposition to this,” Norvell said.
In a letter, Planovsky and Lambrecht said preservation is not for everyone, “but when a home so rich in history is slated to be demolished, we find that very sad.”
The Historic Preservation Commission appointed a subcommittee to help seek an alternative to demolition.