The town’s Historic District Commission denied a Wilmington businessman’s plan Wednesday to tear down the historic Colonial Inn.
Inn owner Francis Henry smiled as the unanimous decision was made, then crossed the room at Hillsborough’s Town Barn to shake board Vice Chairwoman Anna Currie’s hand. He did not stop to answer questions.
The board’s decision echoed public sentiment expressed at an earlier lawn party protest of Henry’s latest plan. Roughly a dozen people asked the board to make the decision that would preserve the landmark, 175-year-old building at 153 W. King St. Among the speakers were Myrick Howard and Cathleen Turner, with Preservation North Carolina, and Steve Schuster, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Schuster suggested the town take advantage of the state’s decades-old eminent domain law to seize the property for public use or benefit. Town officials have considered the move but said the renovation costs would be significant.
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Several speakers asked Henry to consider selling to a potential buyer. Historic District Commission Chairman Mark Bell, who excused himself from the vote, said he and a group of investors have made four offers for the property. Henry rejected those offers, plus two others from different buyers, Bell said.
Henry said Wednesday he has received “bad offers, fake offers.”
“Everybody waits for somebody else to do something,” he said. “And, like a lot of these folks have said, you lose it, and then you say, oh, gee, what’s happened. ... Let’s go have a vote if you’d like, and whatever you decide that’s the way it is, and that’s OK with me.”
He also clarified his request. The application is based on his belief that other people should not decide what he does with his property, Henry said.
“My purpose here tonight is not necessarily to demolish the Colonial Inn but to apply for the right as a homeowner to demolish the inn,” he said.
Henry bought the Colonial Inn for $410,000 in 2001 with plans to restore it. It fell into disrepair as he fought with the town over the repairs and how he could use the property. Henry’s latest plan was to let crews remove materials from the building and replace it with a grassy lot.
The inn was built in 1838 and became a much-loved restaurant and town landmark in later years. It earned statewide significance in 2003 from the State Historic Preservation Office and is part of the town’s National Register of Historic Places listing.
In 2008, the town cited Henry for violating demolition by neglect rules and gave him more than a year to make a dozen repairs. He finished roughly half before the town took him to court in 2010. His 2011 application to demolish part of the inn, build a patio and make it a home was denied.
In 2012, the building was condemned for housing code violations when the town found Henry living there.
Last week, Hillsborough native Chip Millard organized a last-minute “Save the Colonial Inn” lawn party as a fun way to let the town board know how residents feel about the inn. Neighbors Aviva Enoch, Jim Tomberg and Pam Grobin came to the event to reminisce about its history.
“We obviously would like to have it restored and (someone) make use of it,” Enoch said.
The fate of Henry’s previous properties in Chapel Hill – the Martin-Dey House, which was demolished, and the Rathskeller restaurant, which was closed and liquidated to help pay Henry’s taxes – “adds urgency to this situation,” Tomberg said.
Henry has said he can’t afford to repair the Colonial Inn.