Wineka column: Bernhardt House back on the block for a mere $180,000

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 10, 2012

SALISBURY — The Bernhardt House has nine lives. Or so it seems. Once again, Historic Salisbury Foundation has rescued, repaired and returned the historic house to the market, looking for a compassionate buyer.
“This house has been well-loved — and still is,” says Susan Sides, president of the foundation.
The 1882 Bernhardt House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is arguably one of the more important symbols of preservation in the city.
It stands at the eastern gateway to the downtown — the first noteworthy house leading into what people consider historic Salisbury and the last pre-20th century house left between the railroad tracks and I-85.
The foundation will have an open house at the Bernhardt House from 2-4 p.m. today.
The house’s recent history encapsulates the victories, defeats, renewals and perseverance inherent in saving historic structures and keeping them as part of the city’s fabric.
For the record, you could buy the well-appointed Bernhardt House at 305 E. Innes St. and its 4,000 square feet of space for a mere $180,000.
The pluses: wooden floors, high ceilings, period wallpaper, new paint inside and out, wide molding, fireplaces seemingly in every room, a magnificent staircase, four half-baths, 10 rooms, space for up to four office suites, Victorian architectural features, room for a nice outside garden and rear parking for at least 14 vehicles.
The minuses: an elevation below street level, no parking or access off East Innes Street, the close proximity to the railroad tracks and, in past lives, its having been a hotel for vagrants.
The latest Historic Salisbury Foundation rescue of the Bernhardt House came in June 2010, when the foundation repurchased it as foreclosure property from two banks.
It had been empty for several years, and the homeless found their ways into the house through broken windows and crawl spaces.
Doug Black, property manager for the foundation, acknowledges today that he had to be persuaded that the Bernhardt House was worth the reinvestment.
“I thought this was a mess and a losing location,” he says.
But six foundation volunteers, whose average age was 63, cleaned out the house and the grounds, filling up a large-sized Dumpster.
Black then worked from a repair budget to bring the house back to life. The paint budget alone was $20,000.
Some wooden floors had to be replaced. A wallpaper expert was called in to restore plaster and make repairs. All the fixtures and plumbing connected to the four bathrooms were replaced, as well as 13 window panes.
Carpentry repairs were made outside. Slight termite damage was handled. Everything was recaulked. A new waterline had to be installed.
Crews scraped, painted and double-coated with paint an original tin roof.
Ben Hooper and Charles Lane spent considerable hours in the house, and “Doug oversaw the whole thing from top to bottom,” Sides says. “He stayed on top of things.”
As diplomatic as he can be, Black says the homeless who were using the house were vagrants without being vandals.
Things such as window blinds and draperies even survived.
Black discovered, to his surprise, that the noise from passing trains actually is quieter than it is at the foundation’s office at the Salisbury depot.
The train passes below the East Innes Street bridge in a channel below the house that helps to deaden the noise. “I had to learn that,” Black says.
He and Sides don’t discount the possibility the Bernhardt House could be a single-family dwelling again, but it’s an awfully big place where rooms keep opening up to other rooms.
“It’s not beyond a family, but I think it’s a business location,” Black says.
The rear is fashioned to provide three separate entrances into different parts of the house. The front entrance is more decorative than anything, since not much foot traffic would be coming in from East Innes Street.
The price sought by the Historic Salisbury Foundation, which places protective covenants on the property, takes into account the repairs made and what the foundation had to pay the former bank owners.
The house has been back on the market for about six months.
Previously, the foundation had been given the property in 1990, and it spent considerable funds stabilizing the house until selling it to builder Eddie Beaver, who did a full-scale, elegant restoration in 1999.
The house served as Beaver’s contracting headquarters and home for First Carolinas Realty and a display center for Anne Marie Isherwood’s Exquisite Interiors.
But hard times hit Beaver’s business. Foreclosed on, the Bernhardt House eventually became the property of two banks, Community One and First Bank.
Meanwhile, the house also fell victim to a highway project.
When the new bridge over the railroad tracks was built in the middle of the decade, it created a different elevation, putting the house in a hole below street level and cutting off its vehicle access from East Innes Street.
As it stood empty, the bank owners neglected the property. The vagrants did not.
In a deal closed June 24, 2010, Historic Salisbury Foundation became the owner for a second time.
The National Register accepted the Bernhardt House as a Salisbury landmark in 1992.
The house was built for Paul and Mary Jane Leake Bernhardt in 1882 and remodeled to its present appearance in 1902.
Various members of the Bernhardt family lived in the house until 1947, but the most notable probably was George Bernhardt, a man who epitomized Southern gentility.
Bernhardt, who died in 1947, was bookkeeper and vice president of Salisbury Hardware Co., and his obituary said his politeness was ”legendary.“
People even said the house was a monument to the man’s civility. The house also came to be known as ”Old Cinder Sides“ because of cinders thrown against it from passing steam locomotives.
The Rufty family bought the house in 1948, when a back section was added for extra kitchens and dining rooms and the place was converted to apartments. Rufty heirs conveyed the property to the foundation in 1990.
“I wish it were up 10 feet or 15 feet,” Black says, harking back to the elevation, but he adds, “it really is a jewel to itself.”
All it needs now is someone with an eye for a diamond, a diamond out of the rough.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@