Mansion on the Mend




FEATURES July/august 2010

Mansion On The Mend

Can a local Suffolk businessman save the historic house that Obici built? What would Mr. Peanut say?

Bookmark and Share Words by Phyllis Speidell | Photos by John H. Sheally, II

 

Picking A Pediatrition

It's about more than lollipops alone.

To save or not to save? The question perplexed local officials and preservationists in Suffolk for eight years as they considered what to do with the Obici House, a vintage Art-Nouveau mansion with a sweeping view of the Nansemond River, a large stake in local history—and a multi-million dollar restoration price tag.

 

Amedeo Obici, the Italian immigrant credited with putting Suffolk on the map as the “Peanut Capital of the World,” built the mansion on his Bay Point Farm in 1924/1925. The house, reminiscent in design of his hometown of Oderzo, Italy, was equipped with then hi-tech amenities such as central heat and air conditioning, a fire alarm system and a call button on the floor beneath the dining room table that summoned the wait staff with a discreet tap of the hostess’ foot.

Obici and his wife, Louise, lived and entertained in the mansion for 25 years while he, with the help of Mr. Peanut (the leggy legume Obici built into a wildly successful branding campaign), nurtured Planters Peanuts Co. to an industry giant.

In the 1940s Jolyne Dalzell, Obici’s great niece, visited the house often from her childhood home in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., where the rest of the Obici family lived. She remembers breakfasts in the mansion’s formal dining room and lunches on the riverfront porch.

As a child she was intrigued by the cows in Obici’s dairy operation as well as the farm’s rabbits, goats and other animals. She remembers the long pier from which launches carried guests to Obici’s yacht, a 120-foot steel hulled boat originally built for Charles Ringling of the circus family. She remembers the long alee of trees that led to the house and the exotic fruit trees—pomegranates and apricots—planted on the property. All the brickwork on the house was originally yellow, she says, the same brick used on Obici’s Planter’s factory in downtown Suffolk.

And she remembers Amedeo Obici. The suave Italian was short in stature but blessed with a larger than life personality. He was, she says, a “people person,”—the center of every family gathering, a risk taker, a marketing genius and one of the city’s most generous philanthropists.

Local lore describes Obici as gregarious and generous, the type of host who would tip over his glass of wine as if by accident just to set a table full of guests at ease
in his home. He was the man who quickly reached in his pocket for $25, a huge sum in the 1930s, remembers retired Judge William Wellington Jones, who was a high school senior when he asked Obici for a donation to a high school fundraiser.

A Nutty History


The Obici House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but since Obici’s death in 1947, his home’s history has been as checkered as its black and white Italian tile floors. The Obicis were childless, and Obici left the farm and house to his brother-in-law/business partner, who sold it a few years later. From a private home to a reception center, then a catering venue and finally a vacant relic of its former grandeur, it’s been owned by both the City of Portsmouth and the City of Suffolk.
When Suffolk bought Sleepy Hole Golf Course from Portsmouth in 2002 the fading Obici House was part of the deal.

“My wife and I had our wedding reception at the Obici House in 1997 and even then the place was held together by love,” says Patrick Roberts, Suffolk deputy city manager.

In recent years the structure suffered from deferred maintenance—so much so that it
was named to Preservation Virginia’s 2009 Most Endangered Historic Sites List. The list, an annual citing of historic places and buildings that face immediate or long-term threats to their survival, described the house as water damaged and standing on a crumbling foundation.

When buildings like the Obici House are rehabilitated into contributing places in the community, according to Elizabeth Kostelny, executive director of Preservation Virginia, “They add to the character and personality of the community because they are unique, not just cookie cutter buildings.”

Public and private efforts have rescued other historic sites in Suffolk including the old Suffolk High School, now the city’s Center for Cultural Arts; the East Side High School complex, now a recreation facility; and the old Nansemond County Courthouse, soon to be the city’s visitors’ center. But some Suffolk City Council members balked at investing any more of the city’s lean budget funds into restoring the house.

The city already has a road, an industrial park and a health care foundation named for Obici and a hospital named for his wife. There is also some speculation that the influx of newcomers to the quickly growing city may not know—or care—who Amedeo Obici was.

Sue Woodward, executive director of the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society, echoed other long-time residents who revere Obici’s connection to the city when she wondered “How has it all come to this?”

In November the city rejected the few packages responding to its earlier request for proposals for the Obici House renovation. According to the city all of the proposals failed to meet one or more of the specific requirements for the restoration and reuse of the property.

Most of the plans, Roberts says, couldn’t demonstrate continued commercial viability over a number of years without public subsidy. He explains that the city might have had the funds to undertake the restoration, but there are other competing needs, such as neighborhoods in need of updating, school construction and public safety.

For the rest of this article, see the July/August 2010 issue of Hampton Roads Magazine

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