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Chatham house likely will be torn down

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Fate still unknown, say owners

By Lisa King

More than a year after being nearly destroyed in devastating fire, a Shelby County landmark home is to close to meeting its demise, owners say.

Lucy Kerman, daughter of Dr. Charles Chatham, the home’s former owner, spoke sadly of the future, or probable lack of one.

“My husband and I are trying to make a decision about what to do,” she said. “As much as I would have liked to restore it, it takes a whole lot of money to do that.”

Kerman and her husband, Mark, had already put a substantial amount of money into the restoration of the 1859 structure – which had been a private home, an apartment house and even a brothel – when the it caught fire last spring.

The couple had been on the verge of moving in when the fire happened.

Now a for sale sign hangs on the gate surrounding the house, located at 617 Washington Street, between the Mercy Clinic and Dr. Raymond Lohr Dentistry.

The house holds a great deal of sentimental value for Kerman as her father, who bought the house when she was born in 1956, was a dentist and converted one room into a dental museum with an antique dental chair, a 1920s X-Ray machine and an old drill operated by a foot pedal. 

Kerman had talked about possibility trying to obtain some type of historical preservation grant at first, but that did not happen, and city officials say that the Kermans must make up their minds quickly about what they plan to do.

“We’ve actually gone in and because it’s been exposed and the fire was over a year ago, and it’s been sitting for over a year, I walked through it and due to the condition and the shape the building’s getting in, I went ahead and condemned it and gave them 30 days to either give me a plan of action to demo it, or fix it up, one way or the other,” said Barry Edington, Shelbyville’s chief code enforcement officer.

Edington said he had set the date for their decision for Friday, but said the Kermans have asked for a 30-day extension, so they now have until June 23 to either find a buyer, start renovations or OK the demolition.

Edington said Tuesday that the last communication he had with the couple was that they were leaning toward demolition.

“That’s the last I heard,” he said.

Said Lucy Kerman: “My husband and I would like to sell it,” she said. “I have prayed about it. It’s so emotional for me.”

The Chatham House was constructed on the second lot to be purchased in Shelbyville, she said.

It was originally owned by Arabella Martin, who sold it to Dr. William Rogers, a dentist who set up a practice in 1847 and married Mary Cavot, the adopted daughter of Julia Tevis, founder of the Science Hill School for Girls.

Chatham renovated the house in 1982, opening the home the next year as a functioning gift shop, The Ginkgo Tree.

Under renovation again last year, the day the house burned, Kerman and her husband had been all set to celebrate its reopening.

Now it’s just a shell; most of the exterior, minus the roof, is still standing, but the interior is gutted.

A for sale sign hangs on a wrought-iron gate surrounding the property, bearing the phone number, 321-1037.

Mark Kerman said that if anyone is interested in purchasing the property, they may contact them at that number.

Edington said that normally a house that’s been condemned cannot be sold, but he said he is not going to enforce that if a sale could be in the works.

“According to the property maintenance code, once we condemn a building, it cannot switch hands until it’s taken out of condemnation,” he said. “Now we can work with them on that. I won’t be that strict on them. If they’ve got someone that wants to buy it and wants to start the work on it immediately, I won’t be opposed to that. “

He added that he personally hopes it will be bought by someone and restored.

“That’s what we’re hoping, but at the end of that time [June 23], if they’ve not done anything, then we are either going to push them to tear it down, or the city will take over the property and we will demo it ourselves and resell the lot for whatever we can get out it.”

Fred Rogers, Shelbyville Historic District Coordinator, expressed regret at its loss, too.

“The historical reality is that places like this anchor us to the past,” he said. “They are valuable treasures, and I certainly hate to see it go.”