This story actually began in January of 2017.
It was then that UUTC acquired a neighboring tract of property facing Varsity Street that hosted three structures. One of these became the Olympia Brown Oxford House. One became Chalice House, temporary housing for two ministers and then a rental property. The third, #52 Varsity Street--well, it was a bit of a mess.
The house had been unoccupied since 1995. Duke Power records had the address listed as #8 Varsity because the power hadn't been on since 911 compliance dictated a change of address. It was built in 1940 and had asbestos siding (and a couple other asbestos "features," it turned out). The previous owner had used it for storage...storage, neck deep, in all rooms but the kitchen and bathroom. The contents came with the purchase.
It took UUTC members two large construction dumpsters to dispose of the contents that couldn't be given away to some greater purpose. Two younger, tough-as-nails members were responsible for emptying the contents of the attic. Under all that debris was plywood and solid wood decking. Two original chimneys in the structure were discovered to have been capped and removed at the attic level. A leaky roof was traced to a failed boot around the bathroom vent stack, and suspicious mold filled one corner of the front bedroom.
All systems were beyond fixing--to make the house viable, every one of them would need replacement-- electrical, plumbing, HVAC, the roof--and both the kitchen and bath would need all new "parts." The best bid for rehabilitation came in at $85,000.
At this point, the Board of Trustees was faced with a decision of what was "Missional." While Brevard has a great need for housing, was this investment where UUTC really needed to spend money? One structure had already become a home for women in recovery. The other was providing workforce housing.
Now that a cost to rebuild was known, it was time to look at taking it down. Here, the estimates were a little more vague because the asbestos testing had not yet been done. Even so, the highest bid for demolition and cleanup was tens of thousands lower than rehabilitation. A decision was made, and a "best use" plan for demo was begun.
First, the house was opened to metal salvage people in the community. Everything steel from the kitchen cabinets, hot water heater and baseboard heaters was removed. The claw foot tub was donated. Underground Salvage came in and removed bead board, some electrical fixtures, most doors, trim and some cabinetry that was worth saving. And in March of this year, the Brevard City Fire Department was contacted about the possibility of using the structure as the site for a training burn. They looked it over--looked at the capped chimneys, the heat-trapping wood on the attic joists, the separation between the house and its neighbors--and said, "yes, thanks!"
Before an instructional burn could take place, asbestos products were removed from the structure and papers were filed with the state of North Carolina. This process would not have been possible without generous donations to cover the cost of the asbestos inspection and abatement. The removal of those toxic products made the instructional setting safe for the fire fighters and the neighborhood. A date was set for Monday, July 30th. On that day, church members, families of fire fighters and neighbors all began to gather to watch the event.
Captain Adam Hughey was leading the training. Fire fighters from all over Brevard and Connestee Falls were in attendance--some had never before been in an actual burning structure. Ventilation was created for the structure to encourage somewhat predictable burn patterns. In succession, several small fires were created within the structure, allowed to "mature" a bit, and were then knocked down by different teams. Each crew had time to train before the house reached the end of its structural integrity and was lit for the final time. To keep them hydrated and cool, the women of the Olympia Brown Oxford House provided chilled bottles of water.
Another fascinating piece of this exercise was the use of an infrared camera (thermal imagery) equipped drone. This was purchased by the Connestee Falls property association for use by the fire department in locating people within burning structures. Previously, this drone (a new acquisition) had only been used in waterfall fatality recovery. This training provided the opportunity to see how the tool would work in the situation for which it was purchased.
Throughout the exercise, fire fighters continually sprayed the trees around the structure. Some preliminary pruning had been done to a particularly nice red oak that was vulnerable. In the images that follow, you will see instances of the spray from the hose cutting above the house itself as it hoses down the branches and trunk of that oak.
During the evening, many pondered what would happen to the property in the aftermath. A park? A community garden? Parking? As an intentional community, UUTC will allow the site to "simmer" for awhile as our new minister leads us through envisioning what UUTC will do in this space. In the meantime, a grassy green space will be available for our families. --RK
Photos by Isabelle Von Losch, Kay Webb & RK Young.