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Chinsegut Manor House could enhance Hernando County

The most unbelievable thing about the pending Chinsegut Hill deal isn't that the Hernando County Commission listened without protest when told it would probably cost taxpayers down the road.

It isn't even that a staffer dared to voice the radical idea that local government might have a role in preserving cultural resources:

"We believe (this) is a historic treasure worthy of extraordinary effort," business development manager Mike McHugh told the commission on Tuesday.

No, the one truly unbelievable thing to anyone who has driven up to Chinsegut and sampled views of the gorgeous 164-year-old manor house and from the 274-foot hilltop is this:

No other public agency wanted it. It's a treasure that's there for the taking.

More than a half dozen people took the trip to the top of the hill Friday morning.

The time had been set aside so Gareth Eich, a St. Petersburg architect specializing in historic renovation, could give the manor house a preliminary inspection.

But with interest in the property growing fast, Eich attracted a crowd, including county staffers, Commissioner Diane Rowden, a developer who appeared to be nosing around for a job and a couple of members of the media.

They all marveled at what they saw:

Wavy panes of glass in windows and transoms; carved grape-bunch designs on the corners of each door frame; high, solid-looking, tongue-and-groove ceilings; antique books, pianos, beds and wardrobes; dust-covered watercolors painted by a regionally famous artist; foundation beams that looked sturdy enough to support an interstate overpass; stunning views from an attic nook with windows reaching nearly from floor to ceiling.

"Every room you go into, there's something fascinating," McHugh said.

In fact, about the only disagreement was whether the house is in fact a "treasure" rather than a "gem" or a "jewel." Everybody chose one of the three.

And they weren't talking just about the property's features, but its possibilities.

Parties, weddings and business retreats could be held there. Bird-watching or hiking groups would jump at the chance to rent the seven modern cabins on the grounds.

People seemed sure that, correctly marketed, Chinsegut could be a moneymaker and that it would definitely add more luster to Hernando's name than, for example, hosting a mud-bogging TV reality show.

So, how does the county make it an asset and a tourist draw?

That's why Eich was there. The county and a volunteer group, Friends of Chinsegut Hill, need a report on the repairs that are necessary and how much they will cost. It will be written by either Eich or another historic preservation specialist who has toured the property, Jo-Anne Peck.

The Friends group will pay for this report out of a $70,000 pool of private contributions and state grants that have either been collected by the group or pledged to it. That money and any grants Friends receives will go strictly to the manor house.

The county would apply for grants, too, McHugh said, but might well have to tap into its own funds to pay for improvements to the cabins and conference building, which are all in fairly good condition.

If the potential rewards seem higher than the costs, McHugh said, he will recommend that the county assume the lease that the hill's previous tenant, the University of South Florida, announced it wanted out of in 2009.

It will cost almost nothing — $1,500 for five years, an amount already covered anonymously by a member of Friends.

So, why haven't there been any other takers?

Well, for one thing, a wing attached to the north side of the house looked barely salvageable, Eich said, with a section of vinyl siding covering rotting wallboards and a 20-year-old floor mounted on a spongy, termite-riddled foundation.

In the main part of the house, Eich pointed to white mold beneath leaks in the roof and to several of those much-admired wavy windowpanes that, because of settling, had pulled away from their frames.

Eich didn't really need to prove that the floors sloped. But when he opened a spirit level app on his smartphone and placed it on the floor, the bubble stayed firmly lodged on one end.

"That's quite a downhill run," he said of one especially prominent slope.

But he also pointed out stout 3- by 6-inch beams holding up the roof and barely blemished heart-pine floors.

"Overall, this is one beautiful building," Eich said. "It really is a gem."

Chinsegut Manor House could enhance Hernando County 01/12/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 12, 2013 12:55pm]
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