St. John's Methodist Church will be able to demolish and build new construction on top of the property formerly owned by Ola Hitt, after a unanimous vote by the Design Review Board on Tuesday.
While the design presented to the board remains just a concept drawing, the church received an OK for demolition and new construction. In the future, the church will have to present its new concept ideas to the board for approval.
Harry Sampson, church administrator, delivered the presentation to the board and said the removal of the house to another property was considered, but was just too expensive. The church also considered whether it could use parts of the home for future use, but the status of the home was not in good shape.
“When she died, we were given first right of refusal in her will to purchase the house,” Sampson said. “The house was never given to us. We purchased the house for $315,000. She was a great friend of this church. She always thought the world of us, and we always thought the world of her.”
The proposed concept for the lot is the construction of several handicap parking spots with an overhead covering, as well as a proposed worship center or multi-functioning building to move services from the gymnasium while also serving the church's youth. To fund the future demolition and construction, the church started a capital campaign hoping to reach a goal of about $4 million; however, the Rev. Dr. George K. Howle said they welcome as much as individuals will give.
“We are not going to begin demolishing until after Jan. 1 of 2014,” Sampson said. “But we want residents to know that if they would like to look into purchasing the home, we will offer them a price. If someone walked in today or tomorrow and said they would like to buy the house, they would be allowed to do so, which is why we pushed demolishing it until January 2014.”
During the hearing on Tuesday, a large contingent of church members was present, but there were some in attendance who did not agree.
Elliott Levy, executive director of the Aiken County Historical Museum, was not present at the hearing, but said the demolition of such a historic house is hard to understand.
“In 1960, Ola Hitt did something no one else was doing,” Levy said. “She opened her house as a halfway house for veterans. These are World War II and Korean War veterans. So, these people have been wandering around not being able to find their way home. Some of them wandered for six years, others 15. She took them in, she gave them a place to get themselves together.”
“Miss Ola,” as so many Aiken residents called her, was a fixture in Aiken, known for opening her home to disabled veterans for more than three decades. A past president of the Aiken Historical Society and a member of the Business Women's Club, Hitt would even take the veterans on field trips to Alaska or Central and South America.
Howle said while he understands many residents have emotional ties to the home, the church has a special place for Hitt and they would also, with the City's help, like to put a marker in front of the building honoring Hitt.
“We have a deep affection for the history of that house,” Howle said. “A lot of the veterans that were there even came to church here. She loved us and we loved her. We looked at if we could move the house or any possible use, but the cost of rehabbing it was just not feasible.”
Maayan Schechter is the city beat reporter with Aiken Standard.