Renovations Of Our Historic Hotel In Washington

Reprinted from the Washington News-Reporter article by Smythe Newsome

“We’ve put the brakes on; now we want to get going forward.”

With a dozen short words, Michael Todd summarized progress on rebuilding and renovation of the historic Fitzpatrick Hotel in downtown Washington.

Todd and Jim Carter, two of four partners in the project, hosted a tour through the majestic old structure Friday afternoon, December 27, even as workmen continued to rebuild areas which had deteriorated beyond the point of usefulness.

Carter confirmed Todd’s appraisal. “We had to go back into the bad areas of the building first, clearing away, demolishing, replacing, and cleaning until we reached the point at which we could begin building outward again,” Carter explained. “For two principal reasons, it is very important to discern when that point is reached.

“First, for historical and architectural integrity, we want to retain as much as possible of the original structure. Second, we don’t want to spend money rebuilding areas which are already structurally sound.”

Friday’s tour of the project showed that quality craftsmanship, integrity, and safety are paramount considerations as the project moves along.

Progress is most apparent in the back side of the building where, incredibly, a tree had been allowed to grow inside, taking whatever room it needed and pushing aside whatever was in its way.

Today, the building is regaining its shape with extensive reconstruction and brickwork readily apparent from a drive through the alley between the hotel and Master’s Wildlife Services.

Also apparent are the partners’ pride in the project, their commitment to seeing it through to completion, and their attention to detail in reproducing, as much as possible, the original hotel.

The four owners are Todd and his wife, Christy, who live at Winterville; Carter, of nearby Philomath; and Christy Todd’s father, Amit Mehta, of Waynesville, Va. Mehta does not take an active part in the project. All four partners own 25% shares.

Jim Carter is the director of special education for the public schools of Oglethorpe County. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and a master’s from Appalachian State. He also holds three 6-year specialist certifications and has completed course work for a doctorate in educational leadership. He has an impressive resume in historic restoration, including projects in Athens and the surrounding area.

Michael Todd is a Georgia Tech graduate who recently left a 14-year career as an engineer with ABB of Athens in order to devote full time to various real estate enterprises, including historic preservation and renovation. ABB is a European company which acquired the former Westinghouse plant and continues to produce electrical transformers in Athens.

Christy Todd is a graduate of the University of Georiga as well, where she studied advertising and business. She is bookkeeper and business manager for the Todds’ enterprises and is employed by the Georgia Board of Regents with an office at UGA. Her parents are naturalized immigrants who came to the U.S. from India.

The Todds have restored 14 houses in the Athens area and have won Athens Renovations Awards for two of them. Their most recent restoration is of an 1830s house once considered beyond redemption.

As the work has progressed, a surprise discovery is the absence of structural steel in places where it was expected to be found. Steel is now being added strategically in the rebuilding, resulting in a structure actually better and stronger than the original.

The absence of supporting steel allowed the building to sag in time, causing cracks in the walls and masonry. Near one of the big bay windows on the second floor a crack in the plastered wall is about 1.5 inches wide.

“This is one big reason that the hotel has so overwhelmed other prospective renovators,” Todd said. He went on to explain that engineers are being consulted on the introduction of steel to correct the problem in the reconstruction.

Todd further speculated that diagonal sheathing had held the building together and that the sheathing too would have given way in time. “In just a few more years, it is likely that the building might have been lost,” he added.

Other surprise discoveries include 19th-century artifacts and evidence of the June 1895 fire which destroyed the west side of The Square and opened the way for construction of the Fitzpatrick Hotel. The ornate hotel opened March 1, 1900, according to historian Willis C. Lindsey.

After tearing away a subfloor in the ground-level shop on the south side, workers found charred debris in an abandoned basement area. It is believed to be debris which was pushed into the basement after the 1895 fire to clear the way for new construction. Wine bottles recovered in the debris were pre-Civil War, dating 1850 to 1860. Pieces of china were dated from 1850 to 1900.

Half of a steel bed frame with brass caps on the bedposts was found in the basement and matched with another half found in a storage closet. The bed may have been from the original furnishings in the hotel rooms.

According to Carter, the front part of the south-side space in the rebuilt hotel will again be a retail shop. The rear part will be a restaurant with an entrance at the back of the building and access also through the alley.

Every effort is being made to reclaim original materials as much as possible. Todd estimated that 30,000 bricks have been cleaned and stacked for re-use. Todd is actively involved in the work, and he personally cleaned and pointed a large part of the reclaimed bricks.

“We will rebuild with these same bricks as far as they will go, and it looks as if we will have enough to finish the job,” he said. He explained that additional bricks would be obtained from areas which would not be visible and where concrete blocks could be used instead.

Asked about a possible completion date, Carter said there are simply “too many variables and unknowns” to try to follow a rigid schedule. “As a guess, I’d say probably in the summer of 2004,” he added, “but to this point, our focus is completely stabilizing the building. Then we’ll get the State Fire Marshal to approve our floor plan and go on from there.”

Tentative plans call for 17 hotel rooms, three retail shops, a restaurant and dining room, a ballroom on the second floor and a conference room downstairs. The ballroom can accommodate about 150 persons and the conference room about 50.

“We are actively looking for lessees for the retail spaces,” Todd said. “We might use one for our own souvenir and gift shop, and we would prefer tourist-related businesses or something which would cater to the hotel clientele.”

Anyone interested in leasing a shop may call 706-742-7264 for more information.

The Fitzpatrick Hotel has long been regarded as the key to the revitalization of downtown Washington. A series of disappointing false starts and frustrations left it standing as a derelict and a liability, but with great potential for the right developer.

After a succession of would-be developers failed to deliver, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) obtained title to the property and Washington real estate agent Deborah Rainey brought together the four partners and the DDA to negotiate the sale.

“This may be the most important historical event in Washington since the Yankees came to arrest General Robert Toombs,” said Mayor Frank Thomas when the sale was finalized March 1, 2002.

The buyers were equally happy. “Everyone has been super helpful,” Carter said appreciatively. “The members of the DDA, Mayor Thomas, [City Building Inspector] Dave Vanhart, [City Administrator] Mike Eskew, [RDC Representative] Ann Floyd, the people of the Georgia DCA, and so many others have been a pleasure to work with.”

Todd readily agreed and expressed optimism for the future.

“Once we start a job, we stay on it until it is done,” he said. “We take pride in that we have never failed to finish a job.”

Carter said his interest in the Fitzpatrick Hotel dates almost to his arrival in Athens from the Charlotte area in 1964. He first saw the building when he was a student at UGA. He became an Athens resident in 1971 and later renovated his present home at Philomath in 1994.

All through that time, he remained interested in the hotel, and he welcomed the opportunity to join with the Todds in an effort to buy and restore the building.

In an interesting coincidence, the sale was closed on the exact 102nd anniversary of the Fitzpatrick’s opening on March 1, 1900. A date on the building shows 1898, but a labor strike and possibly other factors delayed the opening about two years.

During the tour of the building last Friday, an architect friend of Jim Carter’s visited.

Edward McArthur, formerly of Athens and a Georgia Tech graduate, is now an architect in New York City. He confirmed Carter’s acumen and ability, and shared his enthusiasm for the hotel.

“Jim has the ability to spot hidden design features that most people would never see,” McArthur said. “This building, for instance, has retained a lot of fixtures and finishes and clues as to how it was built and used, and Jim sees those things. A lot of projects in his experience have had much less to go on.

“Being a preservationist requires a lot of detective work, and he knows what to look for and how to find it. He has restored many structures to their original integrity and now he [and his partners] will do that for this building.”

Book your hotel reservation at The Fitzpatrick Hotel today!