Historic Fennell house in Rock Hill faces 6-month repair deadline

Russ Frase in the historic Dr. William W. Fennell House on North Confederate Avenue in Rock Hill. Frase is trying to restore the house.
Russ Frase in the historic Dr. William W. Fennell House on North Confederate Avenue in Rock Hill. Frase is trying to restore the house. aburriss@heraldonline.com

A 105-year-old house – slated for demolition by city of Rock Hill officials 18 years ago but later saved – may once again be in jeopardy as the property owner faces a six-month deadline to make substantial improvements.

The William Wallace Fennell House has been left largely in a state of disrepair, city officials allege, since 1997 when Russ Frase bought the home and planned to start preservation and renovations.

The two-story historic home – which has a full-size, partially underground basement – is located at the corner of North Confederate Avenue and Pickens Street, near downtown Rock Hill. The home, on the corner lot across from Confederate Park, is one of the largest – if not the largest – in the immediate neighborhood.

Frase, the homeowner, told The Herald this week, “There isn’t anyone who wants this thing done more than me.” But he thinks the city should give him more time to make repairs before he faces municipal court on charges that he’s violating the property maintenance code.

City officials have given Frase until Oct. 29 to make repairs that he estimates will total at least $250,000.

After six months, the city plans to reinspect the home and may prosecute Frase in local court if the required improvements aren’t complete. Residents face fines by the court – up to $1,092 per violation – for violating Rock Hill’s property maintenance code.

A home built in 1910 by the man who owned Rock Hill's first hospital faces an uncertain future as the property owner faces a six-month deadline from city officials to make major repairs. The home is located on North Confederate Avenue. City offici

On Thursday night, Frase plans to ask the Rock Hill Board of Historic Review to consider amending some local laws to allow for historic preservationists to “mothball” – a term referring to boarding up and sealing a structure – homes until funding is in place to restore them. “Mothballing” his North Confederate Avenue house, Frase said, would be a good solution for him until he has enough time and money to fix the historic property.

Opponents to changing city rules to allow for “mothballing” historic homes say it’s not fair to neighbors to allow houses to sit empty indefinitely before repairs are made. City laws apply to historic and non-historic homes and do not allow for indefinite boarding or indefinite time periods to make necessary property repairs.

City officials say safety problems and violations of local property maintenance rules abound in the old home at 334 N. Confederate Ave.

The issues were recently outlined to Frase in a five-page letter from the city. Chiefly, officials want Frase to: rebuild the front porch, install doors and windows, repair the house’s “open” foundation, replace damaged siding and paint, and put in new floors where gaps exist.

Ideally, Frase said, he will find someone who wants to buy the home or partner with him to preserve it. The house has been listed for sale for several years, Frase said.

He envisions the home could belong to a large family or serve as a keyman office for businesses.

Frase, a professional carpenter, says he’s passionate about restoring the home to its former glory. The house and the man who owned it, he said, are steeped in history.

Once next to Fennell Infirmary

The home’s namesake – William Wallace Fennell – built the home in 1910. He also built and supervised Rock Hill’s first hospital: the Fennell Infirmary, which was located next door. The hospital building has since been torn down. Fennell died in 1926.

Later, the hospital was operated by the Sisters of Saint Francis – nuns who worked as nurses at the hospital and lived in the Fennell home from the early 1940s to 1958. Catholics also held church services in a large room on the first floor of the residence.

After the nuns left, the Fennell house was sold and used as a boarding house. In the early 1980s, it was known locally as Confederate Hall and housed up to 25 college-aged residents.

Because of Fennell’s contributions to Rock Hill through the hospital and other efforts, Frase said, his house is significant to local history. Often, he said, the house and the old hospital are mistaken for the same building because they had similar looks.

Fennell was a scrupulous man who didn’t spend extra money on bells and whistles for his house, Frase said. “What he built was not fancy but it was very, very high quality.”

The historic house has 10 coal-burning fireplaces, two “sleeping porches” where residents could catch a breeze during hot Southern summers, and a small grotto in a prayer garden in the backyard – installed by the Sisters of Saint Francis.

Though Frase has had several warnings from and many meetings with city officials over the condition of the home, he argues he’s made acceptable progress since he bought the house in 1997. At the time, the property had been condemned and the city was prepared to demolish it.

The owners at the time could not be found, there were liens against the property, and the house was targeted by vagrants and vandals, Frase said. He and others held a community clean-up day and launched a “save the house” campaign.

Frase said he convinced his wife to let him buy it and the city agreed to remove the William Wallace Fennell House from the demolition list.

Since then, Frase estimates he’s spent at least $200,000 on fixing the home. About $20,000 of that has been spent on permits and hauling fees to remove debris and old material from the site. He’s also removed two layers of siding from the house, replaced the roof, and removed two layers of carpet and tile on the interior to expose the home’s original wood flooring.

Recently, he’s been “poked” by the city, Frase said, to do more. In 2010, Frase and the city’s code enforcement team agreed that he would remove the construction scaffolding that had been up for at least eight years, put the house up for sale, and install shutters on the windows because glass windows were consistently broken by vandals.

At one point, city employees closed the sidewalk on the Pickens Street side of Frase’s house because a retaining or “rubble” wall on the property was encroaching onto the pathway.

In 2013, he said, he got another round of city requests to step up the pace of repairs. He admits, by then, “the house was looking shabby.” The economic downtown and personal issues, Frase said, had stifled his progress on the historic preservation.

Now, Rock Hill officials expect repairs to happen more quickly and on a broader scale – not the piecemeal approach that Frase has been allowed to use before.

Frase calls it, jokingly, “the hottest stick I’ve ever been poked with.”

Neighbors complain

Jason Weil, Rock Hill’s neighborhood development administrator, says the city doesn’t want to tear down Frase’s house.

“Especially in the context of a historic home, that’s never the goal,” Weil said. “We’re just looking for compliance.”

Under city rules, Rock Hill can condemn properties and schedule them for demolition if homeowners allow the structure to deteriorate and become unsafe. Property code violations go to trial in Rock Hill’s “environmental court.” Weil also serves as Rock Hill’s environmental solicitor or prosecutor.

Frase’s house, Weil said, isn’t currently on a demolition list but he may be cited and go to court if the improvements aren’t made by the deadline.

Since Frase bought the home to save it from demolition, city officials have allowed him to make intermittent improvements. Now, they say they cannot allow another 18 years to lapse before the house is brought to code.

Part of the reason Frase may be feeling more pressure from the city to make repairs more quickly is because Rock Hill’s code enforcement efforts have ramped up over recent years. Weil says there’s a broader, citywide initiative to make sure properties are in compliance and that staff members regularly follow up with owners.

In Frase’s case, Weil said, “It’s not fair to the neighbors to continue to point to the historic nature of the home and (say) that makes it OK ... There has been some progress but the pace is slow.”

City officials say they’ve heard complaints through the years about the William Wallace Fennell House sitting incomplete in the middle of their neighborhood. There’s also a day care beside the home.

“I wish we had moved quicker,” Weil said, adding that he believes the city has been “more than patient” in giving Frase a chance to preserve the house over the past 18 years.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

Want to go?

What: Rock Hill’s Board of Historic Review meeting. Russ Frase, owner of the William Wallace Fennell historic home, will speak with board members about a “mothball” option to help preserve local historic properties.

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Where: Rock Hill City Hall City Council Chambers, located on Johnston Street

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