Sale of Brandon Hall will help HNF projects

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 6, 2010

NATCHEZ — Pocketbooks are light even for the most penny-pinching of non-profits.

So it is no surprise that the Historic Natchez Foundation has felt the curse of dwindling revenues lately.

“Like all non-profits nationwide, from Mount Vernon to Monticello to Colonial Williamsburg, we are all taking a hit and struggling at this time,” Historic Natchez Foundation Director Mimi Miller said. “Our endowments took a hit and grants that were once available aren’t there anymore.

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“It is not a good time in the historic preservation field.”

The foundation is supported on monies from donations, memberships, fundraisers and grants.

“It is important that people understand we don’t get any money from the city,” Miller said.

Membership levels were recently revised to encourage new members and donors and also to thank the donors and members who are already active, Historic Natchez Foundation Board President Pat Biglane said.

The Pillars of Support program was added to give incentives to members and donors who donate more than $1,000 each year to the foundation.

“Our membership has been great, but what this program does is, for people who are donating again, it gives them something back for their time, effort and donation and may encourage others to begin donating or become a member,” Biglane said. “What it does is give new blood to expand the programs that we have and begin new ones.”

Miller said on top of the absence of normally available grants, revenue the foundation receives from a long-standing furniture licensing agreement has been falling for several years.

The Historic Natchez Foundation has an agreement in place with Henredon Furniture from which the foundation receives a percentage of sales of decorative arts, lighting, fabrics, brass and furnishings referencing Natchez and its antebellum landmarks.

“The furniture industry is in shambles and has been for the past decade,” Miller said. “That has been cutting into our income.”

But the foundation recently received a boost with the completed sale of Brandon Hall.

Brandon Hall was donated to the Historic Natchez Foundation on July 15 by the Brandon Hall Foundation, which is administered by the sons of the house’s former owners, the late Stanley and Elke Diefenthal.

Ron and Kathy Garber recentlly bought the house.

Kathy Garber said it seemed like fate that she and her husband would become the new owners of Brandon Hall.

Garber had stayed at the house a few years back on a trip with several friends and had very fond memories of the property. But it was her husband who discovered Brandon Hall this time.

“Last August he was headed to his hunting camp and an axle broke on the trailer,” she said. “It sparked a little fire on the side of the highway right in front of the house and two fire trucks came out.

“The caretaker of the house came out to see what was going on.”

It was then that he learned the house was for sale. Ron Garber was immediately interested and knew his wife would be excited, too.

“It took him a week to make me really believe he was serious about me contacting the Historic Natchez Foundation about purchasing the house,” she said.

But he was serious and now the Garbers are comfortably at home in Brandon Hall.

“I don’t know how long it is going to take me to get to where I can close my eyes and know where everything is,” she said. “We are so blessed to be a part of this community.”

The Historic Natchez Foundation and the Garbers did not disclose details of the sale.

Brandon Hall will remain on Fall Pilgrimage, and the Garbers plan to open the house for special event hosting and as a bed and breakfast.

The Garbers purchased the house and the property but the furnishings from the house will remain the property of the foundation.

The furnishings will remain in the house and can be moved in the house at the Garber’s will, but can’t be sold.

“There are extensive precautions taken to protect the historical nature of the house and property, and the Garbers were fine with all of the provisions from the beginning,” Miller said.

The funds from the sale of Brandon Hall will serve to further foundation’s mission to preserve, restore and promote the historic nature of Natchez, Miller said.

“Our goal is not to accumulate buildings,” Miller said. “We’ve probably had 25 to 30 buildings pass through out hands.

“We are kind of like the humane society for unwanted buildings. It takes someone who will step in and hold on to something that might otherwise be demolished.”

Case-in-point would be Memorial Hall, which was owned by the Historic Natchez Foundation for 17 years before it was bought to be restored and become the federal courthouse.

The building that was threatened with demolition now contributes to the local economy providing jobs and bringing in parties associated with cases heard in the court.

The proceeds from the sale of the other donated properties such as the Linton House, the Van Court Townhouse and Cherokee, are earmarked for preservation and restoration projects.

“We aren’t just going to take the money and run through it,” Miller said. “But this will free us up a bit to do some things that we have delayed in the past couple of years.”

The funds from the sale of Brandon Hall aren’t as protected as other donations have been, Miller said, so they can be used for a variety of purposes.

Miller said at the top of the list of projects will be maintenance and renovations to the foundation’s headquarters in downtown including renovating an additional meeting room that is available for public use, rewiring computers and telephone systems and general maintenance such as painting and roof repairs.

Biglane said repairs to the Natchez Institute Building that houses the Historic Natchez Foundation are just one thing the foundation has on its to-do list.

“We have a number of things we’d like to do from expanding our programs to fixing up our building and properties,” he said. “We have a property committee that basically looks at our properties and see what needs to do with them.”

Miller said another bit of the money will be used on the ongoing work at the Ritz Theater which was donated to the Historic Natchez Foundation in 2002.

“We have spent in excess of $100,000 on the building,” Miller said. “It had no roofing system and we have been able to restore all of the neon to the sign.

“We don’t plan to hold on to the Ritz for as long as we had Memorial Hall, but it was a building that needed protecting.”

Miller said the foundation has met with buyers interested in acquiring the Ritz, but no deals have been made.