The empty, white frame house surrounded by large oak trees on Highway 84 near Washington Avenue warrants little more than a passing glance these days, but its possible removal to make way for development has renewed efforts to preserve the 122-year-old Hinesville property, viewed by some as a valuable part of the city’s history.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Liberty Consolidated Planning Commission will consider a request by the current owners, local attorneys Jay and Joel Osteen, to rezone the property for commercial use. The Osteens are partners in the development firm Downtown Group LLC.
The Osteens hope to
develop the property for family restaurants. Jay Osteen says currently two national chains, neither of which serve alcohol, have expressed enough interest in the site that they have completed site plans.
“We feel like a family
restaurant would tie in nicely with the downtown development,” Osteen said. “We have a huge interest in the revitalization of Hinesville. We’ve probably put more into downtown Hinesville than any one company.”
Osteen said when he and his brother purchased the house a few years ago, they considered improving the structure.
“I thought it had some historical value, and we thought about remodeling it,” he said.
The house was built in 1887 by George M. Mills, a Civil War veteran who taught school and served as a clerk in the Liberty County Courthouse. Mills’ only son, Wallace Fraser Mills, practiced law in Hinesville and served as a member of the Liberty Troop cavalry. The younger Mills was a landowner who participated in raising livestock and was active in professional circles.
To determine the home’s structural significance, the Osteens called on Patrick Shay, an architect from Savannah. What Shay’s survey revealed, Osteen said, is that the house had already been through an extensive remodel around 1987.
“They added a second story to the original house and they took off the [original] roof. If it had any historical value, it was destroyed during the remodel,” he said. “So right now I’m looking at a 1987 remodel that totally destroyed the historical character.”
The Osteens have discussed the future of the structure with city officials including Vicki Davis, director of the Hinesville Downtown Development Authority. Davis said the Mills House is one of several properties of interest to Hinesville’s preservation committee.
Davis said she doesn’t know of any previous efforts to declare the house an official historical property but that the committee in its early years compiled a list of structures acknowledged to have some significance for Hinesville’s cultural history.
The list has since grown exponentially — Davis said the downtown authority conducted its latest survey this year, and there are roughly 200 structures, with 40 to 50 waiting for surveys. Plans are in place to have more comprehensive surveying conducted.
“The Osteens have been up front with their plans, and it would be great if we could find a solution. At the very least, the commission’s concerns are to save the house.”
The Mills House once served as the site of Hinesville’s Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority, and Davis said such business occupations have often been the best preservers of a residential structure’s historical integrity.
Davis confirmed that the Osteens’ plans for the property don’t include preserving the house at its current location, but the brothers have offered to give the house to the preservation group if they find the means and a site to move it.
“I would give them as long as it took, if they could find a way to move it and a place for it,” Osteen said. “Of course we’d want a timeline, but we would bend over backwards to accommodate them.”
The challenge of relocating the structure lies pri-marily in the cost. Davis said discussions have been held about the possibility
of a capital campaign to raise money for the relocation.
Aside from obtaining property, the process of moving a house can be costly depending on several factors. Ronnie Carter of Carter OC House Moving in Baxley said costs can go as high as $30,000, but each home is evaluated individually and priced according to its new location.
“If it has a chimney, the chimney has to be removed. Some two-story houses, you have to remove the second story, or the roof. A loaded house can’t be above a certain height,” Carter said. Movers also must deal with right-of-way issues, power lines and a home’s utilities. “It could take four hours or it could take a day and a half,” he said.
Even without the Mills House occupying the property, the site does have an aesthetic value that Osteen hopes to preserve. He said he has been working with the interested parties to make sure their site plans include keeping the largest oak trees intact.
“We want to save all the big oak trees,” Osteen said. “My preference would be to save all the trees I could.”
The planning commission meeting is Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. at the Liberty County Annex Board Room.