Valdosta Daily Times

January 27, 2011

A historic tragedy: Valdosta’s oldest house burns

Kay Harris
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The wind-whipped flames reached into the early morning sky, as neighbors said one minute, the house was fine, and the next, it was fully engulfed.

Valdosta’s oldest house, the Roberts House, was acquired by the Valdosta Heritage Foundation in the 1990s, and has since been the focus of a detailed restoration project aided by many donors. The architect who has overseen the project, Glenn Gregory, stood on the sidewalk Wednesday morning and watched his work go up in flames.

“We’ve spent all these many years ... it’s like losing a family member,” Gregory said.

The house had burned once before, years ago, and Gregory said the attic was charred when the Foundation began restoring it. “But that fire was nothing compared to this.”

Valdosta Fire Chief J.D. Rice said the fire began on the back southside of the structure in an interior room, and that 29 mile-per-hour winds (official reading at the airport at the time of the 911 call) pushed the flames quickly through the house.

“One of my guys was on his way to work this morning and saw smoke and called it in. We were already on the truck headed this way when the 911 dispatcher called us,” said Rice. “The house was already fully engulfed by the time we got here.”

Harry Hamm and his wife, Delia, live next door to the Roberts House, and he said the house was fine when he left for work, but that his wife called him five minutes later, at a few minutes before 8 a.m., and flames had already taken over.

Other neighbors gathered at the scene, all saying that the time between first noticing the smoke and seeing the house engulfed was only a couple of minutes at best.

Gregory said the house has a fire alarm, which alerted 911 at the same time as the first call from a neighbor came in, and also an intruder alarm, “so there’s no reason to think someone did this. There wasn’t anyone in the house.”

Hamm requested that as much of the antique furniture be salvaged as possible, and after the fire had subsided, Rice allowed his firefighters to go into the house. They retrieved tables, chairs, and a divan, along with smaller items, but all were water logged. Hamm was confident they could be restored, as he and Mayor John Fretti assisted in carrying the furniture to Hamm’s lawn.

“This is a very emotional day. The history and the heritage that we’re losing,” Fretti said. “I certainly hope professionals can salvage what’s left of the house but the wind just really made fighting this fire very difficult.”

Rice said the two-alarm fire involved more than 40 firefighters and eight trucks, including two ladder trucks. The firefighters took shifts fighting the blaze from all angles around the house, including from above, as two in the ladder truck kept two hoses trained down on the house in an effort to knock all the flames out. Several hours later, the house was a shell of its former self.

Rice said it will take several days for investigators to determine the exact cause of the fire.