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Friends of Chinsegut Hill worry for historic Manor House's future

We should all have a cause like the Chinsegut Hill Manor House that fires you up beyond the point of writing a check or a column and gets you thinking in terms of pitchforks or at least protests signs.

Fortunately, I don't think we're at that point yet, though there was some alarming news about the Manor House last week.

The University of South Florida, which leases the 160-year-old house north of Brooksville and runs it as a conference center, will shut it down July 1. The facility loses about $100,000 a year, said spokeswoman Lara Wade, "and we can no longer afford to subsidize it.''

That means no more retreats or weddings, no more jobs for the Manor House's five employees, and, most importantly, an uncertain future for what may be the county's most historically significant and scenic property.

The announcement set off a frenzy of e-mails and phone calls among members of the volunteer group Friends of Chinsegut Hill. Most were worried the land would be sold to developers.

They were right to be concerned, considering the state's desperate economic situation. And if there's any indication this might happen, well, that's when we march on the Capitol. By which I mean, realistically, we send out lots of e-mails and show up at every meeting where the sale is discussed.

But Christie Arenberg, manager of the nearby Ahhochee Hill sanctuary and a member of Friends, said on Friday that her conversations with USF officials have convinced her that a transfer to another public agency is far more likely.

The university has merely asked to be let out of its lease. The state owns the Manor House and grounds, Wade said, and will eventually decide whether to sell the property and, if so, to whom.

This might well turn out for the better. Running it as a conference center has kept it too closed off from the public and barely generated enough money to keep the Manor House from collapsing.

Though previous owner Raymond Robins stipulated that the land be used for educational purposes, Arenberg sees it more as a potential historical site focusing on Robins and his wife, Margaret.

They bought the house in 1904, expanded it and planted the azaleas and palms that still grow on the hill. They hosted famous friends such as Thomas Edison and William Jennings Bryant and helped create the legacy that led to the house's inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places six years ago.

"There are strong connections to the black communities, the connections to the (Civilian Conservation Corps) and, ultimately, the most incredible conservation legacy anywhere around here," Arenberg said.

That includes the donation of more than 2,000 acres for preservation and research, and, of course, the 114-acre Manor House grounds.

Another good thing has already come out of USF's announcement.

I found out that a lot of people feel as strongly about Chinsegut as I do.

That includes county tourist development coordinator Sue Rupe, who said the property is "part of the history of the county, a gorgeous location, and we're looking at every avenue to keep it open and protected."

Hopefully that will send a message to the state: There are a lot of people down here willing to grab pitchforks.

Friends of Chinsegut Hill worry for historic Manor House's future 05/30/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 31, 2009 1:47am]
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