Allen house continues on demolition course

By Lynn R. Parks

When Beatrice "Bebe" Allen Moore was married, she and her wedding attendants got dressed in her family home on High Street and then walked the short distance to Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church. She remembers that day and posing on her home's stairway with her attendants for pictures.

She also remembers the home's three "gorgeous" fireplaces, with wooden mantels and surrounds made of tiles collected from around the world, and the several times, when she was a child, that bats came down a chimney and flew around the house. "We were running all over the place with nets, trying to catch them," she said.

Moore, 66, grew up in the house at 114 High St. in downtown Seaford. The home is one of six structures in the downtown area that the city has condemned and plans to demolish by the end of June.

"This is very sad for me," said Moore, fighting back tears. "I look at that house and I just wish that I could do something to help it."

The home, known to many as the Allen house, was built in 1865 for his son by Gov. William Ross. The Ross family owned the High Street house until it was purchased by William and Addie Allen, Bebe's grandparents. William, who died in 1946, was active in Democratic politics in Sussex County; he served in the state Senate and was a U.S. Congressman.

Bebe's parents, Robert and Beatrice Allen, moved into the house when Bebe was small. Her father died there in 1985 and her mother moved out a few years later. Beatrice Allen died in 2000. In 1994, the Allen family sold the home to its current owners, John C. Chanoski and Pamela A. Landon. The condition of the house slowly deteriorated until on Sept. 30, 2011, it was condemned.

Joshua Littleton, the city's building official, said he believes that the house has been unoccupied since 2007.

"The first documentation of the exterior deterioration was in September 2010 when the porch columns showed signs of structural failure," Littleton said. "The exterior deterioration was documented and the owner was sent a letter describing the deficiencies. Other than temporarily bracing the collapsing porch roof, there was no other action by the owner to correct the issues."

Since then, other problems have developed. Ceilings on the first and second floors show signs of water damage. While most of the plaster is still intact, paper covering the plaster is water-stained. In one second-story closet, some of the plaster has fallen off, exposing the lathe. Wallpaper in the first-floor foyer is spotted with mold.

Several windows in the house are broken. Others, particularly on the second floor and in the attic, are rotten. On a bright day, sunlight was visible in the attic through several holes in the roof, in particular around the chimneys.

The deck around an indoor pool and hot tub is partially collapsed.

Outside, the home's siding is rotten in several spots. Its chimneys are also suffering from water damage, with missing grout and bricks, and are structurally unsafe.

The house also shows signs that people have been staying in there. "We know that we have had vagrants in here," Littleton said. "We have had to board it up several times."

Downstairs, the floors are littered with bedding, magazines and trash. A dog dish is in one room; in another, dog treats are scattered on the floor. Throughout the house, radiators and mantels are pulled away from the walls, left behind by someone trying to steal them. Light fixtures are missing. In the kitchen, a wall has been cut out and wiring pulled away from its moorings, another abbreviated theft, Littleton said.

Despite all of that, the house seems surprisingly solid. The floors, except in a few spots where Littleton cautions a visitor to be careful, are even and solid. Doors are in good shape and the glassed transoms are all still in place.

In the large room on the left side of the foyer, a grand piano still sits in the bay window. On the other side of the room stands one of those beautiful carved mantels that Moore remembers, most of its tile still intact. But the hearth is dirtied with the remains of a fire and several cigarette butts. Whoever built the fire there "is lucky that he didn't burn the house down," Littleton said.

Littleton said that for two years following the condemnation, there was "no forward movement on correction of the violations."

Given the fact that people go into the house, Littleton is particularly concerned about public safety. The front porch "is in danger of collapse at any time," he said. "No one should be on it."

That danger of collapse extends to the front porch roof, accessible from the second story hall through a set of double doors. A demolition order was issued on July 10, 2013.

A possible soluion Five months ago, in December, Bamdad Bahar, founder of the Service General franchise, which has a store in Seaford, entered into a conditional sales agreement with the owners of the house. Bahar owns the house next door, which he renovated and converted into apartments. Bahar said that in December, he started meeting with Littleton and other city representatives, to try to find a way to save the house. Bahar was interested in fixing up the structure as a residence for himself. Bahar, Littleton and assistant city manager Charles Anderson toured the property and Littleton and Anderson described to Bahar what needed to be done. "They said that I needed a new roof, new windows, new wiring and plumbing," Bahar said. "It was a long laundry list." He estimates the cost of completing that list at $200,000. "It didn't make sense to me," he added. "It seemed that they went a little overboard." He believes that the work that is required to make the house livable would cost less than half that amount. Bahar brought in an engineer and an architect to evaluate the building, and continued to meet with the city. Then, he learned that the house was to be torn down. "I was working in good faith, trying to work things out, when out of the blue came this demolition order," he said. "I feel like I've been stabbed in the back." City manager Dolores Slatcher agreed that the city was working with Bahar, but she added that the city has no proof that Bahar is the legitimate owner of the property. There is no record of his conditional sales agreement at the deed office in Georgetown. Such proof is required before the city can give its stamp of approval to a renovation plan, Slatcher said.

Worth the trouble Tammy Kearney is a member of Seaford Tomorrow, formerly the Seaford Enhancement Team, whose mission it is to boost the city's downtown area. Last week, she toured the house with several other people and came out feeling that the structure is basically in good shape. "It was not as bad as I'd been led to believe," she said. There were no bad smells that would indicate dampness, mold, human habitation or rodent habitation, she said. While plaster in some spots was missing, the walls were solid, she said, and the floors are "in great shape." Christina Darby, also a member of Seaford Tomorrow, argues that the Allen house is well worth saving. She points to Cannon Hall, the historic home in Woodland that was nearly destroyed by fire in 2010 and is being renovated, as proof that even the most damaged structure can be salvaged. "The Allen house has stood here for more than 150 years," she said. "It is a structure worth bringing back to life." Bahar said that in the end, he will go along with whatever the city decides. "I'm not going to fight the city," he said. "If they decide that it has to be demolished, then that will be that." At the same time, he said that he would be willing to work with anyone who is interested in saving the historic house. "I believe that the house is salvageable," he said. "But the city has to be reasonable. At the end of the day, it's about the dollars and cents." Slatcher said that only the city council can reverse the demolition order, and then only if the owner provides a written work plan, including a timeline for completion. Should the order be reversed, the city would be responsible for costs incurred by the contractor hired to do the project. "In addition, if the city did this perpetually, then contractors could increase the cost of demolition work or avoid bidding," she said. Bahar believes that his situation points to the city of Seaford's general unwillingness to work with business and property owners. "The city should be in the business of providing prosperity for the people of Seaford," he said. "It shouldn't be worrying about every little aspect of its building code." Slatcher disagreed. "We will stand on the fact [that] we try very hard to accommodate owners to succeed where we have the latitude to do so," she said. "As the city, we are required to abide by the codes, laws and regulations of the state and the city. If an individual would like to have those regulations or laws changed, then it will take legislative action at both the state and local level."

Other wrinkles Another building on the property has been condemned but is not yet slated for demolition. Bahar said that he intends to apply to the city for permits to fix up that building. Cost of the demolition of the Allen house would be $34,632. Sunnyfield Contractors Inc., Dover, has been awarded the contract for the work. If the demolition goes through, the city would put a lien on the property for all costs related to the demolition, as well as a $500 fee. The city would not take possession of the land. Mayor David Genshaw said that the city has no plans for the property. Other properties that the city intends to demolish by June 30 are at 3 Chandler St., 343 N. Arch St., 806 E. Third St., 808 E. Third St. and 809 E. Third St. Total cost for the six demolitions is $83,140.

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