BROOKSVILLE — For nearly four years, Jan Knowles and the rest of the Friends of Chinsegut Hill felt like their backs were against the wall when it came to saving the 165-year-old landmark home from the risk of falling into private hands.
Promises of help from state agencies didn't pan out, and private preservation groups lacked the resources to do much more than lend moral support to the group's grassroots effort.
However, all of that changed Tuesday with a unanimous vote by the Hernando County Commission to enter into a five-year contract to lease the manor house and its surrounding property from the state for $300 a year. The deal also names the Friends as the group that will oversee the manor house, retreat, conference center and 114 acres north of Brooksville.
"We are so ready for this," Knowles said. "It's a new beginning."
With the lease agreement complete, Knowles said her organization is poised to immediately begin restoring the three-story antebellum home, a task that became easier with a recent appropriation of $1.5 million from the Florida Legislature.
An assessment study of the manor house details a significant amount of deterioration due to neglect and previous faulty repairs. Friends founding member Christie Anderberg said restoration work on the facility will follow a schedule that will allow the manor house to reopen to the public as quickly as possible.
The most immediate concern will be shoring up the home's termite-ridden foundation, which is expected to cost about $20,000. Plans also call for a complete reroofing of the structure and ridding it of lead, mold and asbestos, all of which is expected to cost about $75,000. The restoration process will include construction of a ramp and enlarging restroom facilities to make the manor house more accessible to handicapped people.
Built in the early 1860s, the house and its 2,080-acre plantation were gifted by owners Raymond and Margaret Robins to the federal government and became an agricultural research facility. The U.S. Department of Agriculture leased the home and part of the surrounding land to the University of Florida in the 1950s, then to the University of South Florida, which used the property for 40 years as a retreat and conference center.
Anderberg said her group's goal is to turn Chinsegut Hill into a high-profile visitor destination with features such as a museum, a conference center and an environmental studies facility.
"It's going to be a place that people will want to visit for any number of reasons, whether for a specific event or even if they just want to come out and walk around for a while," she said.
Visitors will be able to do just that starting this weekend, Knowles said. A grand opening celebration is being planned during summer.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.