OXFORD — The Cedar Oaks Mansion and L.Q.C. Lamar House Museum were once dilapidated buildings in danger of either being torn down or falling down on their own until concerned citizens got together to save the two homes from disrepair.
The Cosmopolitan and Centennial clubs revived Cedar Oaks and the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation bought and renovated the Lamar house.
After the two homes were restored, they were turned over to the city of Oxford to manage which, in turn, handed them to the Oxford Convention and Visitor’s Bureau two years ago.
A recent tourism survey, conducted by Berkeley Young Strategies research firm to help boost Oxford tourism, said the OCVB has no business managing the two homes.
"The OCVB staff are very talented and highly-skilled professionals and their time is being wasted on dealing with maintenance issues for these homes," Young said recently when presenting the survey findings to the Oxford Tourism Council. "They do not have the historical preservation technical skill to operate these facilities that have distracted them from their primary functions of marketing these attractions."
Under the OCVB umbrella is the Oxford Conference Center and Oxford Tourism, headed up by Hollis Green and Mary-Kathryn Herrington, respectively. Herrington and her staff are responsible for marketing the properties and staffing the docents at the Lamar House while Green handles the upkeep and maintenance of the two homes.
"Anything structural, they come to me," said Green, who added that the Tourism Council and he agree with Berkeley’s findings.
"These homes need someone who has a clear understanding of historical properties," he said. "I’m in the business of hosting events and renting spaces and Mary-Kathryn’s job is to market the city of Oxford to get more tourists here. At any moment, we are taken away from those responsibilities and our primary jobs."
Green believes everyone on all levels, from the Tourism Council, which oversees the OCVB, to the board of aldermen, agree with the findings. However, what to do with the homes is another story.
"Herein lies the problem," Green said. "We know we have to do something with them. But where are we going to find the money to hire additional people with that kind of background?"
In the study, Young suggested the city take the homes back and hire someone, even part-time, whose sole job is to manage the city-owned historical homes, including the Lamar House, Cedar Oaks and any others the city may eventually take on.
Green said he budgets $25,000 a year for the maintenance of Cedar Oaks and $50,000 for the Lamar House, although it’s the Cedar Oaks mansion that requires higher maintenance- related costs.
"When Lamar House was renovated, it was completely rebuilt up to today’s standards as far as insulation goes," Green said. "Cedar Oaks never had insulation so when we set the thermostat on 50 degrees in winter, it will run continuously and in the summer, when it’s set on 80 it’s the same thing."
Electric bills for the house during this past winter averaged about $300 a month.
"We’re hoping to see that go down this summer," Green said. "We put in some dehumidifiers that are hardwired now and run continuously to pull out the moisture which helps the air conditioning run better."
Cedar Oaks is mainly used as a party place for wedding receptions, baby showers and birthdays. The Lamar House is a museum with displays in each room depicting the life of Lamar who served as a U.S. representative and senator, and as U.S. Secretary of the Interior before becoming the only Mississippian to ever serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Lamar wrote Mississippi’s ordinance of secession from the Union.
Both homes bring in about $12,000 in revenue a year.
The Buildings and Grounds crews, under supervisor Billy Lamb, do all of the landscape and most of the maintenance work on the homes unless something has to be contracted out, like the recent squirrel damage to the Lamar House that cost the city $10,000 to fix.
"If it’s changing a light bulb or AC filter, my guys here at the conference do it," Green said. "If it’s more than that, I call Billy."
Built in 1859 by William Turner, Cedar Oaks is a Greek revival structure that has survived a tumultuous past. Molly Turner Orr gathered a fire brigade to save the home in 1864, set aflame by occupying Union troops. Nearly a century later, Cedar Oaks was moved 2.2 miles from its original location to survive business development. Two clubs, the Centennial and Cosmopolitan, owned the house and cared for it the best a group of concerned women could do. But the job became more than they could manage so they sold the house to the city, combined forces and are now called the Cedar Oaks Guild.
President Dianne Fergusson said the sale of the home was with the understanding the city would manage it and keep it up.
"The city has been very responsive to us and any requests we have," Fergusson said. "We’re happy with the relationship we have to Hollis and Mary-Kathryn; however, I understand it’s a lot on their plate and they’re over-extended."
Fergusson said hiring someone to manage the properties with a background in preservation would be more than welcomed by the club.
"I think that would be splendid," she said. "Our mission would continue to be supportive of the home with fundraisers and promoting Oxford’s history."
The Lamar House was declared an Oxford landmark in 2004 and restoration efforts began via several federal and state grants as well as contributions from the city of Oxford and Lafayette County governments. The restoration cost $1.5 million and was finished in 2008 and transferred to the city. Exhibits were brought in depicting Lamar’s life and the house is now used as a museum and visited by students and tourists.
The answer as to what to do with the two properties — and possibly a third as restoration of the Burns Belfy Church nears completion — will eventually lie with the board of aldermen.
Alderman Janice Antonow said the board will discuss the future of the properties, but she said the best move the city could make is take the properties back from the OCVB and form a new board to manage the homes.
"We need to establish a historic properties board with people who know what they are doing with these properties and have knowledge in historic properties," Antonow said. "And, who really care about them."
Information from: Oxford Eagle, http://www.oxfordeagle.com
Alyssa Schnugg/The Oxford Eagle