Historic Savannah Foundation shares concerns over deteriorating Kiah House Museum

The Bridge

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Drive down W. 36th street in Savannah and you’ll find an older vacant and decaying 2-story home known as the Kiah House Museum.

A huge section on the front of the house has been boarded up. 

“I’ve been in a lot of vacant historic homes in the last 6 plus years. This is one of the worst I’ve been in, in terms of condition,” said Ryan Arvay.

Arvay, is the Director of Preservation and Historic Properties for the Historic Savannah Foundation (HSF).

“This house has been on HSF’s radar for many many year. We were aware of its significance. We were aware of it’s condition,” according to Arvay.

Virginia Jackson Kiah called the house her home.

“She was a recognized artist in her day. And her role in Savannah drew a lot of people to visit her like Rosa Parks,” explained Arvay, “It’s rumored that Duke Ellington paid a visit here. There is an upright piano at the top of the steps. Maybe he played a little piano with her.”

Kiah was also a well known educator, community activist and civil rights advocate. 

Kiah bought the house in 1959 and converted it into a museum naming it the Kiah Museum.

She and her husband, Calvin, worked together to create a learning museum open to all Savannah residents. 

Due to segregation laws in 1959, Virginia herself could not have her own work exhibited in other museums.

Virginia wanted to create a learning museum where African American children could be exposed to art, science and natural exhibits.

The front of the Kiah Museum once had big glass windows that allowed lots of natural light to display her art work.

“Ms. Kiah was an accomplished artist. Known for her portraits. There’s an expressiveness in them. She had a great hand and really understood color.”

“The house is pretty empty but there are little signs of life that are still here. Children’s books, it’s neat to glimpse that. I wouldn’t say it’s a time capsule. it’s pretty empty but you can still go up the stairs and see the ghosts of where the old paintings were. You can match that up, kind of see what hung where. We kind of hope to bring that life back to the house.”

HSF says the house is in danger of further deterioration.

“We want it to have a happy ending. And right there’s a lot of unknowns about this property. I think we’re in a good chance of saving [it]. It’s the best chance it’s ever had. But there is still a lot of uncertainty,” explained Arvay.

Arvay says the HSF has secured a contract to buy the property and restore it. But he says their hands are tied until legal issues are resolved.

“We obtained that contract well over a year and a half ago, but are still waiting for this thing to come to a close. It has to make its way through the courts. It has to receive approval from a judge and that just hasn’t happened yet. We wanted to have a happy ending.”

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