BROOKSVILLE — The arrival last week of a work crew that began restoring the foundation of the 164-year-old manor house at Chinsegut Hill was a welcome sight for Christie Anderberg — a day that she and other members of the Friends of Chinsegut Hill have long awaited.
The trucks were loaded with tools and equipment that are being used to replace the three-story structure's crumbling 19th-century wood beams, which support the outer walls of the house and its adjoining kitchen wing. The work is the first step in a yearlong process to restore the mansion to its former glory, said Anderberg, who is overseeing the restoration effort.
"Once everything is finished, people are going to be amazed at the difference," she said. "Our goal is to make it a community treasure again, something that everyone will be excited about when they visit."
That the historic home, which was once the homestead to some of Hernando County's earliest pioneers, will once again be open to the public is a testament to the unflagging dedication of the nonprofit. After the University of South Florida announced in 2008 that it was abandoning the facility, which it had used as a conference center for more than 40 years, the group launched an all-out effort to save the home and its surrounding 114 acres from eventual sale by the state.
After more than two years of searching for a government entity willing to back the group's vision of establishing a museum and "green retreat" for ecological and historical groups, the dream was all but dead. Finally, there was some good news when the county agreed to serve as the leaseholder for Chinsegut Hill, choosing Friends of Chinsegut Hill, which had raised about $27,000 in private donations and was on track to receive a $50,000 historic enrichment grant, as the property's steward.
More good news came in June, when the group learned that Gov. Rick Scott had signed a bill allocating $1.5 million to restore the landmark.
But, according to Jo-Anne Peck, owner of Preservation Resource Inc., the company hired by the Friends to inspect and make recommendations, time and nature have not been good to the home, which was built entirely of native hardwoods. Although still structurally sound, decades of neglect and ineffective repairs helped hasten the deterioration of some areas of the structure.
"Most of the damage probably could have been preventable had there been more regular upkeep," Peck said. "But my guess is that some of that was probably due to lack of funding. They were putting Band-Aids on something that needed surgery."
Many of the cypress foundation beams, dating back to the home's original construction in the 1850s, have succumbed to the ravages of moisture, termites and other wood-feasting insects. As a result, floors have buckled, cracking plaster and causing windows and doors to distort. Steel support beams installed beneath the floor a decade ago did nothing to stop the problem, Peck said.
Peck's recommendations call for removing the rotted beams and replacing them with ones made of pressure-treated lumber on both the manor house and the kitchen wing, plus the installation of concrete pilings to aid in releveling the house.
The delicate job of lifting the house slightly began over the weekend with placement of a series of beams to support the walls while new sill beams and concrete pilings were installed. Once that work is completed, the house will be lowered onto its new foundation.
The next phase of work, expected to start in a few weeks, will involve reroofing both buildings and replacing rotted external wood features such as windows, sashes, soffits and exterior support features.
Anderberg said the total cost of the manor house restoration isn't yet known but that at least $800,000 will be spent on the structure itself, including $50,000 to rid it of lead paint, mold and asbestos and to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Under the terms of the grant, a portion of the money will be spent on an archaeological study of the plantation, originally named Tiger Tail Hill during the 1840s by owner Col. Byrd Pearson.
Also undecided is the time period the house will reflect once it's completed.
To help with the effort, a research team from USF's College of Arts and Sciences plans to conduct a spacial technology assessment, using historic photos and drawings to come up with a three-dimensional map of the home.
Anderberg said her preference would be to return the manor house to the way it was when Raymond and Margaret Robins — the activist couple who bought it in the early 1900s and are buried in a small cemetery on the grounds — lived there.
"To me, the manor house that everyone has come to know was their vision," she said. "It would be nice to see it brought back and be something they would be proud of."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.