Originally created 07/06/97

The worst of times



It was the best of times for two of Augusta's finest houses around 1920. Today, it is the worst of times.

Once a showplace in the heart of Augusta's black community, the house at 1518 Twiggs St. now stands in peeling paint and disrepair, while a few miles away, on Telfair Street, another early-century beauty decays almost beyond repair.

The 900 block of Telfair Street was once the address of five stately houses that featured a variety of architectural styles.

Only one of the houses that graced the street in the early part of the century remains, and that one is in disrepair and was recently threatened with condemnation.

The houses fell victim to a mid-century development spurt, said Erick Montgomery, executive director of Historic Augusta, Inc.

"Telfair became like a commercial strip," he said. "In the process, they tore down all the houses. They've chased all the people out of the inner city. You can't go in and rip everything down and expect people to want to live there."

Charles Hooper lives in only a few rooms of the house he inherited from Miss Genevieve Mary Cashin at 927 Telfair St. after her death in 1984, city officials said.

The eaves are rotting away, the roof is falling apart and ivy is laying claim to the rambling 2 1/2 -story mansion, according to city officials.

Mr. Hooper declined to be interviewed for this article, but Augusta's senior housing inspector Larry Lariscy said the house is just another of the complicated cases the city must deal with, each with a story of its own.

Some are very sad.

Two years ago, the city threatened to condemn the Telfair Street house, but ended up getting Mr. Hooper some paint through the city's free paint program. The front of the house is now painted blue while the rest weathers away.

Mr. Lariscy estimated it would take $250,000 to restore it.

"I'm afraid it's about beyond repair," he said. "The administrative decision at the time was to let him stay there and paint the front of it, and maybe try to find a buyer."

The Queen Anne style beauty was built in 1912 on property deeded to John J. Cashin by Annie B. McCarthy. In 1931, Ellen C. Cashin deeded the property to her daughter Genevieve Mary Cashin, who willed it to Mr. Hooper and Helen Nixon, according to Richmond County court records.

Mr. Montgomery said the neighborhood's decline is the result of poor planning.

"You tear down these houses and you get huge gaps that look terrible," he said. "(The remaining house) was not intended to sit there by itself."

The city is threatening to crack down on housing violations by posting signs on condemned property with the owner's name, address and phone number. If that doesn't embarrass them into action, the buildings will be demolished and the property sold at auction.

The sign issue has become a hot topic among owners of properties in blighted areas, such as Charlotte Hornsby Watkins, the owner of 1518 Twiggs St.

When she was growing up in the 1940s in the house built around 1915 by her father, Walter S. Hornsby Sr., the neighborhood was a thriving center of black middle-class life.

The house, a graceful two-story built in the Colonial Revival style, with white columns and spacious front porch, stood behind a wrought-iron fence on an oak-lined street.

Today, six years after her mother, Harriett Hornsby, died and left her that property and many others that Mr. Hornsby, co-founder of Pilgrim Life Insurance Co. owned during his life, Mrs. Watkins tries to decide what to do about the house.

"Like most of the homeowners in the area, I inherited the property," she said. "This house was well-kept while mother was there."

Those were the days of socializing on the front porch and home entertainment, she said, reconstructing the neighborhood from memory.

"Dr. S.S. Johnson's brick house is still there on the corner," she said. "His office was not far up Ninth Street. It still stands. His son still lives in the house, and another son is a surgeon in California.

"Dr. Johnson's aunt lived about two doors away. That house is in even worse condition than my parents' home. That is 1514 Twiggs. Next to 1514 was a two-story house where Ruby Robinson, a music professor at Paine College, lived.

"Her husband died, and she remarried S.M. Jenkins, and then she moved out to Milledgeville Road and rented that house. All of those were nice houses."

S.S. Simkins, a famous black popular singer from the community, "the Johnny Mathis of his day in the 1940s, would occasionally visit and give a concert in Augusta," she said.

While Mrs. Watkins has not lived in the Twiggs Street house since she went off to school at 16, many of the people who own property in blighted areas still live there, And even if they don't, they are retired, on fixed incomes and have trouble keeping the property up, she said.

A vacant lot is an invitation to illegal dumping, and clean-up costs run into the hundreds of dollars.

She showed written estimates of $1,200 for cleaning up two of her vacant lots and of $450 for one.

And posting signs with the owners names, addresses and phone numbers would be "inviting harassment" and robbery, she said.

Someone high on drugs might see a sign and think the owner had money because he owns property and then go to his house and rob him, she said.

"In this city we hear there have been home invasions, and I think this might not be the intent of the sign, but it might be the result," she said.

"I don't think they really understand what it is they're doing. "This is a Band Aid solution. It's not thought through."

She thinks the the best way to solve any problem in a neighborhood is to ask the people who live there what they would suggest.

"I don't think one simple thing is going to do it. It has to be a variety of solutions to tailor it to people's individual situation."

Mrs. Watkins said she could have torn the 1518 Twiggs St. house down but has sentimental and emotional attachment to it.

"I would like to see it back the way it was, but that may not be practical because of the neighborhood itself," she said. "The Ruby Robinson house, the Jenkins house, all of those are in equally poor condition, but I'd like to think that with my parents' house as a focal point Community Development could go in and determine if they are structurally worth saving.

"These houses have meaning to people who live in that community, just as the houses on the lower end of Telfair mean to the people who live there."

The loss of the Twiggs Street house would be a big loss for the Bethlehem community, said Griffith Polatty, preservation services manager for Historic Augusta.

"It's one of the few high-style houses in that neighborhood. That and a few others on Twiggs Street, such as S.S. Johnson's house. The larger houses have more detail to them. In that neighborhood, a large percentage are shotgun houses."