LUMBERTON — A piece of Lumberton history could be yours for $39,000 — and a little elbow grease.
The municipal building that previously housed Lumberton’s City Hall and fire station has been on the market since 2013, attracting dozens of prospective buyers looking to own a bit of the past.
“This is probably one of the most popular municipal or community buildings I’ve worked with,” said Cathleen Turner, regional director for Preservation North Carolina, which is working to sell the building to an investor willing to restore its historical character. Turner said many potential buyers have been introduced to Lumberton and its historic district by the old municipal building and are “charmed by it.”
The Lumberton City Council on Tuesday voted to allow the city’s option with Preservation North Carolina to automatically renew on Aug. 31. Under the agreement, the city must give 30 days notice if it wants to cancel the option.
Construction of the building, located at the intersection of Elm and Second streets, began on Nov. 26, 1917, according to that day’s issue of The Robesonian, and cost about $11,000. It was built to house offices for the city clerk, treasurer and police chief as well as a conference room and the fire station. It was expanded in the 1940s, according to Preservation North Carolina’s listing of the building.
“It’s always been a part of the community since it was constructed,” Turner said.
According to the Sept. 13, 1917, edition of The Robesonian, a cemetery stood on the site before the city, under the direction of Mayor James Proctor, built the structure. Before listing the building with Preservation North Carolina, the city had discussed demolishing it, but abandoned that plan after more than 500 people signed a petition to save the historic site.
It’s unclear when the 7,520-square-foot building was last in use. The Robeson County Fireman’s Association had begun some renovations to use it as a meeting space and firemen museum, but that plan never became reality.
Now, the deep-red brick building sits empty, overlooking the downtown plaza and the courtyard of the Robeson County Public Library. A few features do provide hints at the building’s past: the out-of-use connection for a wood-burning stove, covered by mint green paint; a firetruck garage too small for today’s modern machines; and an iron light fixture above the entrance.
“Dignified, carefully detailed,” a 1989 registration form entering Lumberton’s commercial district in the National Registry of Historic Places says of the building.
“It’s a gem just waiting for someone to pick up and do something with it,” said Lumberton City Councilman Leroy Rising, who as a Century 21 real estate agent, showed the building to potential buyers several years before his election to the City Council.
Rising said most clients he took to the building were looking at using the downstairs — which is mostly sectioned off into offices — for commercial space, and the open, airy upstairs for apartments. Turner said most clients she has brought to the site have also been eyeing a commercial-residential mix.
“It has such great curb appeal, I think, and it’s in such a good location, it could be a real landmark on the plaza,” Rising said.
Lumberton Fire Chief Paul Ivey has also shown the building to about 15 or 20 prospective buyers. Firefighters used to slide from the second floor to the first on a pole that his since been removed; the hole connecting the floors covered up. Residents could also bring their empty fire extinguishers to the site, where firemen would refill them in the building’s basement.
“The upstairs area is a big open area,” he said. “I can only imagine what it was like years ago having the beds and sleeping quarters for the firefighters.”
Turner is optimistic about the building’s prospects — state tax credits for historic preservation, which can offset the costs of renovating an historic property — were restored Jan. 1, making the project more affordable for buyers.
“Preservation is a key economic development tool and I think this building epitomizes that,” she said. “Where it’s located, I think it could be a catalyst for future development.”