Preserving History at Hillsborough’s Colonial Inn?

Frances Henry wasn’t really welcomed to Hillsborough with open arms when his upset bid topped other contenders in the foreclosure auction of the Colonial Inn back in 2001. Around the same time he had acquired Chapel Hills’s Rathskeller, or “The Rat” as we all knew it, as well as the Martin-Dey House next to UNC’s Delta Upsilon fraternity, of which he was a member in his university days. The Rat continued its downward spiral and the Martin-Dey house was a subject of much press because Henry intended to tear it down, while preservationists wanted to, well, preserve it. Mr Henry’s name in Chapel Hill circles was becoming questionable. I guess the Old Guard in Hillsborough was worried about what this interloper might do to the historic Colonial Inn in their fair town. Egads – maybe he simply enjoys destroying history!

I generally took Mr Henry’s side in much of this. After all, The Rat was a place whose time had come and long since gone. Buying it with the hope of restoring it to its former glory was a futile exercise in nostalgia. Good on Mr Henry for trying, but we all knew it would never work. Similarly, the Martin-Dey house was a dangerously unstable shack the fraternity had agreed decades earlier to give freely to anyone who could relocate it; but there were no takers. It wasn’t worth restoring; the land it sat on was worth more with the shack gone. Even the modern-day preservationists could come up with no feasible way to move it and had no place for it if they could. So, give Francis Henry a break, I thought, he’s trying to make a home here and busy bodies are unfairly painting him as an ogre.

No, the welcome in Hillsborough wasn’t warm. The relatively recent kitchen addition on the Colonial Inn was poorly done and riddled with vermin and had to be removed and replaced. Henry met with the Historic District Commission (HDC), that has to approve any exterior work on properties in the Historic District, but the two could never come to an agreement. Henry could not put his vision into a plan he could present to the HDC, and the bureaucrats could not back off of their need for measured drawings and official formats. When Henry realized the Inn had lapsed into residential zoning and requested re-zoning to allow a restaurant, a handful of neighbors petitioned the Town to deny rezoning. Rather than fight – victory all but guaranteed – Henry decided residential zoning would be OK after all. When he was later found living there (its residential, after all, right?) he was evicted and the building condemned. Fines we levied for “demolition by neglect” and compromises were made, but progress never seemed to get a foothold.

Somewhere along the line Hillsborough found a new way to poke Henry in the eye: Statewide Significance. This designation, made possible by new regulation by the State Historic Preservation office, effects one singular change to the property rights of an owner of property in any designated historic district: it transfers the right to demolish the property from the owner to the local Historic District Commission. Some would call the taking of property rights without compensation “theft”, the Hillsborough HDC presented it as a gift. Mr Henry was… livid. Perhaps he never considered demolishing the Colonial Inn until that point, but at that point it became a bone of contention.

And so it has gone for, what, nearly fifteen years now? Miscommunication, mistrust and bad blood left the Colonial Inn sitting vacant, unmaintained, and hammered by the elements. The Inn was falling apart not due to a lack of interest or a lack of resources, but due to the inability of the people involved to work together towards a common goal. The entire situation was, and continues to be, asinine (I use far more colorful terms in person, but Mrs Moriarty taught me well in high school that such language can be off-putting to some readers).

I became actively involved with the Colonial Inn a little over a year ago. Kristiana McKinnon, a Hillsborough native and elementary school teacher began a social media campaign to energize local folks to become involved in pushing for Town action on the Colonial Inn. I was one of the few voices urging that the figurative pitchforks and torches be put aside in favor of dialog with the owner. Hotter heads cooled some, and Kristiana and I engaged with Mr Henry to try to understand his position. Over a few months we met often with Mr Henry and developed a solid working relationship, to the point that he asked us to make him an offer to buy the Inn in December 2014. We quickly formed the Colonial Inn Preservation Association (CIPA) and made an offer for far more than the property was worth. That offer was, of course, declined. Mr Henry had no intention of selling as that would be tantamount to admitting defeat. If the Inn was to be restored, he wanted to be a part of it.

We continued to develop the CIPA and adjusted our offer to one of partnership. We had the ability to raise funds rapidly, with broad community support He had the property, but a business case no sane private investor would touch. Together we could make something magical happen on King Street. We added several people to the CIPA board of directors, including key people in Hillsborough, Chapel Hill, and people with extensive experience in historic renovation.

In parallel to this, one of the forward thinking Town Board members, Eric Hallman, began talking to Mr Henry and tried to outline a path to resolution of the problems between Mr Henry, the Town and the HDC. A big piece of that was convincing the Town to fund a study by the UNC School of Government that would provide a financial framework that all involved could use to navigate towards a renovated Colonial Inn. We at the CIPA were thrilled – this sort of thing would cost anyone else tens of thousands of dollars. This was a major concession by Hillsborough and a signal that they were prepared to let bygones be bygones.

The UNC report was delivered in 1Q this year, and it said exactly what the CIPA expected. That is, from a private investor’s point of view the Colonial Inn was worth more as a vacant lot than as a building. It would take philanthropic input, grants and tax abatement from city, county and state governments, and broad partnership to make a full renovation work. They outlined sources, they outlined the best revenue-generating use of the space, they provided a framework any reasonable businessperson could use to craft a pathway to profit. Hillsborough thanked UNC for the work, and set up a meeting a few months later for the Colonial Inn owners to present their plan for restoration based on the new framework.

That meeting took place last Monday, July 27th. It was… a fiasco. it was one of the more feckless performances I've ever seen. No plans were presented, only vague and rambling ideas. Mr Henry and his Real Estate Finance advisor seemed entirely clueless how the processes of interacting with Town Planning worked. The Town Board was patient, but obviously a bit concerned that after all these years, after all the talks, after the funding of the study by UNC.... that the Colonial Inn owners showed up only to tell rambling stories; including a quick mention that a ceiling had caved in due to water damage from leaking roofs.

Then, as if on cue, a day or two after the Town Board meeting there were fire trucks rushing to the Colonial Inn. It turned out to be simply a fire in the fireplace, tended by the owner burning old papers. But, online discussion groups filled with posts wondering about the timing and intent, given the Colonial Inn is a tinder box with no running water and Mr Henry’s petition to be allowed to tear down the Inn just over a year ago. Hillsborough responded by posting yet another notice on the property stating it is condemned and none may enter. This time it was red!

Where do we go from here? The events of the last Town Board meeting are, in retrospect, not surprising given the past decade of interactions between the Town and the Colonial Inn owners; neither is the dispatch of the fire trucks. I’m still confident a working relationship can be salvaged, but far less confident than I was before. A concept I found abhorrent a few months ago is one that will likely become a hard reality for the Town Board in the coming months: Eminent Domain.

Can Hillsborough afford to let this wound fester much longer? Roofs caving in, fire trucks responding to calls from neighbors about burning at the Inn, years and years of wrangling with a recalcitrant owner who, even now, can produce no plans for renovation and restoration of a major piece of Hillsborough’s history. The next Town Board meeting is in early September. Will the owners show up with a plan? Elections are coming up in November and three town board seats are up for election. Are candidates for those seats prepared to take real action?

Who knows. But, clearly it is time for the good people of Hillsborough to rally to the aid of the Colonial Inn. Too much damage has been done, to much "wait and see". We must make this a priority with the Town, and we must make it *the* issue in the coming election. The Colonial Inn can afford no more delays.


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