NORTH AUGUSTA - When city officials praise the historic virtues of the old Palmetto Lodge, they focus on a golden era when the place catered to the turn-of-the-century hunting needs of the American plutocracy.
Rockefellers and Firestones frequented the ornately carved Georgia Avenue hall, built in 1903 as a satellite for the posh Hampton Terrace Hotel, which was destroyed by fire in 1917.
Tucked behind tall shrubbery, the now-vacant mansion sits on the northeastern edge of a district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
That's reason enough, officials say, to consider spending more than $850,000 to buy the old lodge and turn it into a city-owned venue for weddings, civic meetings and special events.
It turns out that the Palmetto Lodge has two more recent bits of history not in the preservationist's dossier. Both involve restaurants.
In 1989, the place was known as the Buffalo Room, named for the stuffed head of a black bison hanging on the wall. When restaurant owner Bruce Salter refused to serve six black members of the NAACP, including Aiken County Commissioner Willar Hightower, an FBI civil rights investigation and a civil lawsuit quickly followed. The Buffalo Room also got its state liquor license revoked.
Along the way, Mr. Salter talked about routinely refusing service to blacks, including entertainer James Brown.
"That was the amazing thing - that in 1989, you would still have that kind of mentality," said the Rev. David Walker, the president of the Aiken NAACP chapter and one of the six men denied service by Mr. Salter.
"We started up the walkway, and this guy came out and started cursing and using the N-word," the Rev. Walker said. "We never made it to the veranda."
In 2000, Mr. Salter's son Randy was running a restaurant called Seven Gables, a bow to the mansion's distinctive roofing. In December of that year, U.S. Treasury officials auctioned off the building as part of a plea agreement with the younger Mr. Salter after he pleaded guilty in a Texas court to charges of drug dealing and using the restaurant to launder marijuana profits.
Don't blame the building for the actions of two of its former owners, say those who want to see it restored to its historic glory.
"The stigma of all that needs to go away," said North Augusta realty agent Bill Hixon, who tried to sell the building for Cecil Barnes, who died late last year. "The building has a lot more history that's good history to concentrate on. The bad history's gone."
Lynn Thompson, the president of the Olde Towne Preservation Association of North Augusta, also favors the city buying and restoring the building. But she is also quick to sound a warning.
"Whatever you think it's going to cost in your wildest dreams - double it," she said.
That's the rub, says Arthur Shealy Jr., a city council member who opposes spending tax dollars on the project. He fears the city might wind up owning a money pit, an expensive showcase that siphons revenue away from more worthy government projects - such as a tax break for residents or an extension of the Greeneway north of the city.
"This project is coming out of the blue, and suddenly the city has $900,000 to spend," he said. "If we can find money for this, why can't we find money for these other projects?"
The proposal that recently surfaced during a council study session calls for spending $862,000 to buy the mansion, repair it, pave the parking lot and knock down a 1950s-era motel on the property.
That money could come from two sources - $500,000 in sales tax dollars and $362,000 in Riverfront/Central Core hospitality and accommodations tax money.
Mayor Lark Jones, the prime mover behind the proposal, says the project would complement private-sector preservation projects along West Avenue and Georgia Avenue. It's also an opportunity for the city to acquire a historic showcase that would add a unique amenity to North Augusta's roster of parks and community centers, he said.
The proposal faces more than a money hurdle. The mansion is tied up in what appears to be a protracted probate court battle over Mr. Barnes' estate, Mr. Jones said.
"I think there are higher priorities than buying an old building and converting it into a special events venue," Mr. Shealy said. "If Bill Gates lived here and we had his kind of money, we might do it."
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (706) 828-3904 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The North Augusta city council is considering a proposal to spend $862,000 to buy and renovate the historic Palmetto Lodge as a special-events venue. The Tudor-Revival mansion on Georgia Avenue was built in 1903 as a hunting lodge for the old Hampton Terrace Hotel and also has been a private home. It housed two restaurants that are now defunct, the Buffalo Room and Seven Gables.
Sources: North Augusta city government, Olde Towne Preservation Association
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