The Money Pit

William Scarbrough House, stripped to bare brick, at the start of Historic Savannah Foundation’s early 1970s restoration.

By the 1970s, historian and preservationist Walter Hartridge had convinced new Savannah resident Frances Bosworth to buy Scarbrough House and create a foundation for it. They discussed a maritime museum, but instead gave the property to the Historic Savannah Foundation. Using Pennsylvania architect John Milner, grant money and Lane family money, the foundation restored the house from 1972-76 and moved its headquarters to the mansion.

HSF took off the third floor added by Scarbrough’s son-in-law and replaced the roof with one inspired from a house in Bath, England. Exterior walls were stripped to the brick and restuccoed. The front wall of a demolished carriage house was recreated as a gate beside the house. Chimney pieces, plaster walls and cornice ornaments were repaired or replaced. Evidence of a stair in the entrance hall was discovered but not recreated since its origin was unknown.

Nearly 15 years later, Historic Savannah was ready to move on. Mills Lane IV was unhappy that his family had tried to save Scarbrough House multiple times without permanent success, and he outlined the efforts in letters to sympathetic listeners. Transferring the building to the Telfair Museum seemed to make sense.

“During the passing years, Scarbrough House became a burden upon Historic Savannah’s resources… About 1990, I and my mother offered to make a gift of $1 million … to make it possible for ownership of Scarbrough House to be transferred to the Telfair Museum. Historic Savannah Foundation would be freed to return to its main mission and Telfair Museum would be able to own and preserve all three surviving mansions designed by William Jay.” [with the Telfair Academy and the Richardson-Owens-Thomas House]

Despite the Jay connection, and a Lane maintenance endowment, soon the Telfair also wanted to move on to other projects.

“About late 1993 Telfair Museum informed the Lane family that it had changed its mind, had other priorities, no longer had any plans for the Scarbrough House and proposed to lease it to the City of Savannah for offices at $1 a year,” Mills wrote.

The Lane family asked that Scarbrough House be transferred to Ships of the Sea Museum in an effort to save it again.

In 1994 Ships of the Sea Museum spent $100,000 on repairs and $60,000 on architectural drawings in a plan “to further renovate the house as a center for charitable, cultural and social activities. The parlor would be redecorated in Regency style and made available for lectures, public meetings, cultural and social events. The basement and bedroom floors would be rented at the lowest charge to small charitable and cultural organizations.”

While Mills was not happy with the stewardship of the property by other nonprofit organizations, as the costs mounted, Ships of the Sea faced what the others had experienced.

“It became evident that improvements to the roof, exterior, interior and garden, including provisions for handicapped access and a landscaped parking area, would cost twice the original estimate and more than Ships of the Sea could afford.”

The Museum was also concerned about operating costs, changing tax laws and the surrounding land use, so Mills and Ships of the Sea Museum decided to sell the house.

“Ships of the Sea Museum offered to work with any non-profit group including SCAD that might propose some use for the preservation of the house with some public access. But nothing materialized.”

The Scarbrough House was a money pit and everyone knew it. In fact, when describing his restorations and renovations, Mills made reference to the movie, “The Money Pit,” on more than one occasion.

“Even assuming that the house were to sell for the amount asked, $950,000, the net proceeds of would still be less than the money expended by the Lane family and Ships of the Sea Museum,” Mills wrote.

“It is our hope that Scarbrough House will find some commercial use that will preserve it and allow public access to the parlor floor.”

But Mills couldn’t let go of the grand mansion, and soon set out on the biggest restoration project of his life.

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