New hope for Chinsegut Hill manor house

The 162-year-old antebellum manor house at Chinsegut Hill hasn’t been open to the public in nearly three years.

DAN DEWITT | Times

The 162-year-old antebellum manor house at Chinsegut Hill hasn’t been open to the public in nearly three years.

BROOKSVILLE — Stained ceilings, peeling paint and rotted wood are all indicators of the neglect of one of Hernando County's most storied historic buildings.

Though the 162-year-old antebellum manor house at Chinsegut Hill is still officially in the hands of the University of South Florida, it hasn't been open to the public in nearly three years.

Jan Knowles, president of the Friends of Chinsegut Hill, a nonprofit, grass-roots organization dedicated to the preservation of the manor house and its surrounding buildings, hopes all of that will change soon. Last week, the group completed a proposal through the Department of State's Division of Historic Resources for a grant to help pay for an estimated $43,000 in improvements, including a new roof, plus repairs to windows and the air conditioning.

Although additional work is needed, Knowles said addressing the worst damage would be a good start toward stabilizing the building.

"It needs to be addressed soon," she said. "Otherwise, the damage is only going to get worse."

Construction on the manor house originally began in the 1840s on Tiger Tail Hill, north of Brooksville, considered one of the highest points in Florida. The property was bought by Raymond and Margaret Drier Robins in 1904 and renamed Chinsegut.

For more than 40 years, the historic home, its peripheral cabins and the surrounding 114 acres served as a retreat-style conference center operated by the University of South Florida. But in 2008, the university announced it could no longer fund the operation, and the property was put on the state's surplus property list.

Other than grounds upkeep, little maintenance has been done, and so far, Friends is the only group that has shown an interest in coming up with the money needed to reopen the facility to the public.

Ever since USF's pullout, Friends has been working to come up with a deal that would allow it to sublease the mansion and use it as a museum and "green retreat" for ecological and historical groups.

But putting together a viable management agreement with the state has made for a bumpy road.

For a while, it seemed the facility might wind up in the hands of the state's Department of Corrections, but the state abandoned those efforts.

Two years ago, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approached Friends with an offer to partner in running the facility in conjunction with its Chinsegut Nature Center, located on adjacent land.

But the deal was contingent upon the preservation group's raising $75,000 in matching funds. A "Save the Hill" fundraising campaign brought in about $25,000 in donations from private donors, plus pledges from groups such as the Florida Audubon Society, the Junior Service League of Brooksville, the Hernando Historical Museum Association and the county tourism council.

But the deal fell through in July when the conservation commission was unable to land a grant needed to facilitate the project. That left Friends scrambling to find an entity within the state's bureaucracy with which it could work.

"It's been very tough finding the right person to talk to," said Christie Anderberg, who serves on the Friends board and is helping to write grants for the organization. So far, the group has made the most progress with the Department of Environmental Protection.

In July, Anderberg submitted a letter to the DEP expressing interest in assuming USF's 99-year lease. She is currently putting together a business plan for running the facility.

Division of Historic Resources director Robert Bendus said his department hopes to evaluate the Friends' grant proposal sometime in March. If the project is chosen for funding, work on restoring the manor house could begin next summer.

"It's obviously a project that the community feels is viable enough to support," Bendus said. "Those are good factors to have when it comes to seeking grant money."

Meanwhile, Friends of Chinsegut Hill continues its fundraising efforts and keeps garnering community support for its preservation plan.

"I haven't run into one person who doesn't think it's a worthwhile effort," Knowles said. "Chinsegut Hill is a jewel that should always be available for the people to enjoy."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.

New hope for Chinsegut Hill manor house 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 12:14pm]

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