‘We’ll do all that we can to save it’: Savannah’s Kiah House Museum makes 10 ‘Places in Peril’ list

WSAV NOW

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – A century-old Chatham County home has made the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of 10 “Places in Peril” across the state.

Over the past 16 years, the annual list has highlighted Georgia’s most endangered historic places, each facing threats from neglect, lack of maintenance and possible demolition.

The Georgia Trust’s goal is to raise awareness for these troubled locations to help preserve them for future generations.

Savannah’s Kiah House Museum may not look like much of a museum in its current deteriorating state, a condition that landed it on the Georgia Trust’s 2021 list.

A “no trespassing” sign greets any visitors of the boarded-up, gray and crumbling 110-year-old home on West 36th Street, which has been vacant for nearly two decades.

It was once owned by Savannah State College education professor Dr. Calvin L. Kiah and his wife Virginia, who was a public school teacher and artist.

“The Kiahs were very influential people in the culture of Savannah, and the building is an important part of the Brownsville Historic District, so we’re really anxious to save it,” said Georgia Trust president and CEO, Mark C. McDonald.

He tells WSAV NOW that as the director of the Historic Savannah Foundation from 1998 to 2008, he helped work to preserve the Kiah House Museum.

“I think it’s very important, and we’ll do all that we can in the coming year to save it,” McDonald said.

In 1959, the Kiahs established in their home one of the first museums in Savannah started by African Americans, and the location was listed as one of the Reader’s Digest Treasures of America in 1974.

The Kiah House Museum’s notable visitors included civil rights activists Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

“All the things that Mrs. Kiah fought for, everyone is still fighting for,” said Laura Seifert, founder and director of the Savannah Archaeological Alliance.

She and her team have conducted some archaeological testing at the site in an effort to preserve the structure.

“[Mrs. Kiah] would have been front and center of the Black Lives Matter movement, and we’re still fighting all the same civil rights battles that she fought throughout her whole life, so that’s one big reason to keep her legacy going,” Seifert told WSAV NOW.

Following Virginia Kiah’s death in 2001, the museum was abandoned and left in probate. 

“We want to find someone who can help us through the probate issues; that’s at the top of the list,” said Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon, founder of the African Diaspora Museology Institute.

Johnson-Simon has worked to restore the museum since 2014 and started a GoFundMe page last year to help raise $5,000 toward purchasing a Kiah House Museum historical marker. 

The fundraising campaign exceeded its goal, and Johnson-Simon says she and the community are working on having a historical marker added in the future.

“We just don’t want it to look like this and be demolished; that’s our prayer,” the museum anthropologist told WSAV NOW.

“I can’t even come here without feeling emotional,” she said of the neglected property behind her.

With the museum’s “Places in Peril” nomination, Johnson-Simon says she’s found a renewed sense of hope that had begun to dwindle.

“We are very hopeful now that we’re going to find a dedicated buyer and Laura’s going to be able to finish doing the research because that’s going to bless this community to have the archaeological work being done there,” Johnson-Simon said.

Among other properties on the 2021 “Places in Peril” list is the Blackshear City Jail in Pierce County, Georgia, which was built in 1894.

“That was planned to be a place of public execution, although it was never utilized for that purpose,” McDonald said.

The aging structure has faced neglect and abandonment over the years, he added.

(Image credit: MotorSportMedia/Halston Pitman/Nick Woolever)

“They want to turn it into a local historic site, perhaps a museum of the city, and it’s certainly a striking building and a unique one, so we’d love to save that as a historic resource for the state,” McDonald said.

He notes that of the Georgia Trust’s more than 150 “Places in Peril” sites, over 85% of them still exist. “A good two dozen or so have been completely restored,” he said.

View the full 2021 “Places in Peril” list by visiting this link.

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