Partial building collapse in Lynchburg

Building officials have determined that this vacant building on Dunbar Street, a hospital site during the Civil War, will have to be taken down entirely due to the state of the partial collapse this week.

A building that local historians said was once used as a Civil War hospital is set to be demolished after a partial collapse earlier this week.

A wall of the 612 Dunbar Drive structure collapsed Monday night according to neighbors, although no one reported it to the city, Lynchburg Fire Battalion Chief Paul Ginther said.

No one was injured.

“We discovered it ourselves earlier today,” Ginther said Wednesday afternoon. “One of the guys on a medic unit was coming back from a call. He noticed the whole four stories of the back of the building had collapsed.”

He said neighbors reported it to a nearby business, which in turn contacted the owner, who lives in South Carolina. The owner contacted a construction company, which agreed to take down the entire structure. Ginther did not know when that could happen.

This Civil War-era tobacco warehouse was one of many in Lynchburg that found itself pressed into service as a hospital during the war, according to local historians.

Only two survived, this building and the current Morris Construction building on 12th Street, which has been refurbished and played host to some historical re-enactments.

“You hate to lose something like this,” said Doug Harvey, director of the Lynchburg Museum System. “It’s a definite loss.”

During the war, dozens of local buildings were converted into hospitals, including 19 tobacco warehouses. In Virginia, Lynchburg was second to only Richmond in its number of Confederate hospitals.

Peter Houck, author of “A Prototype of a Confederate Hospital Center in Lynchburg, Virginia,” said the city made for an ideal medical hub because its sloping terrain kept much of the fighting at bay.

“For the most part, fighting was done on level ground, not hilly country like Lynchburg,” Houck said, adding the practice of taking soldiers to hospitals was an innovation of the Civil War.

“Wounded soldiers used to be treated on battlefields in tents,” he said. “So it was a major change to start getting wounded soldiers off the battlefield and into hospital cities like Lynchburg.”

Most of Lynchburg’s warehouses-turned-hospitals were demolished in later decades.

Houck said the Dunbar Drive warehouse, known as the Miller Building, had a particularly unusual background because it also served as a morgue during the war.

“It’s too bad we’re losing our history this way,” he said, adding the cost of restoring buildings like these is often prohibitive.

“We have a hard enough time keeping up major historic sites like Poplar Forest and Point of Honor and Sandusky. It takes a lot of work on a lot of people’s part. So, unfortunately, places like the Miller Building can just end up being neglected.”

The Morris family has been conscientious about maintaining the other building, Houck added, and hopefully will preserve it.

The owner of the Dunbar Drive building, Harold Gibson, of Seneca, S.C., said his family had been looking to gauge interest in the building for its historical value, but the economic climate had made selling it impossible.

Gibson said he bought the building from his son, Leland Gibson, who had purchased the building as a warehouse for his heating and air conditioning business in Lynchburg before he moved back to South Carolina.

“I wanted to get him some capital to be able to operate with,” Harold Gibson said, “so I bought it from him until he was able to re-purchase it back.”

The transfer never happened.

City records indicate Harold Gibson bought the building in 2002, for $128,775.

Leland Gibson bought the property in 1999 for $35,000.

Harold Gibson said his son was traveling to Lynchburg on Wednesday to handle things for the family.

“I’m sure it’s going to have to be demolished,” he said. The family didn’t have a timetable for tearing it down, he said, and would be working with the city to determine that.

“Our major concern right now is safety ... and then make arrangements probably to demolish it.”

He said the loss would be a substantial financial hit for his family, since the building can’t be sold.

“I have a mortgage on it, and the cost of demolition,” he said.

“It will hit us pretty hard ... I don't know what the demolition costs might be.”

Ginther said the building is unstable and could possibly collapse into Dunbar Drive, a bus route used by Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation. The road will remain closed until the building is demolished.

Though the structure bore a Civil War Trails marker, it was not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, city officials said. Ginther said the building was braced years ago, but has been deteriorating from leaks in the roof and general lack of upkeep. 

UPDATE: 5:20 p.m.

A four-story building once used as a Civil War hospital is set to be demolished after a partial collapse earlier this week.

A wall of the 612 Dunbar Drive structure collapsed Monday night according to neighbors, although no one reported it to the city, Lynchburg Fire Battalion Chief Paul Ginther said.

No one was injured.

“We discovered it ourselves earlier today,” Ginther said Wednesday afternoon. “One of the guys on a medic unit was coming back from a call. He noticed the whole four stories of the back of the building had collapsed.”

He said neighbors reported it to a nearby business, which in turn contacted the owner, who lives in South Carolina. The owner has contacted a construction company, which has agreed to take down the entire structure. Ginther did not know when that could happen.

According to the book by Lynchburg resident Dr. Peter Houck, “A Prototype of a Confederate Hospital Center in Lynchburg, Virginia,” the 1845 warehouses straddling Dunbar Drive near 12th Street were purchased by tobacconists William Miller and John Knight in 1851. During the war, 237 soldiers died in the two buildings, per Houck’s book. They were the only two of 18 tobacco buildings in the city used as hospitals that remained standing.

Ginther said the building is unstable and could possibly collapse into Dunbar Drive, a bus route used by Dunbar Middle School. It will remain closed until the building is demolished.

Although it was believed to have been a hospital and bore a Civil War Trails marker, it was not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, city officials say. Ginther said the building was braced years ago, but has been deteriorating from leaks in the roof and general lack of upkeep.