The Richmond Hill History Museum isn’t shabby per se. In fact, it’s in much better condition than one might expect given it once housed a bevy of kindergarteners in the 1940s and ‘50s, and later the office workers of a bustling paper company. Sure, it needs a shiny new coat of paint, and yes, the chimney happens to be a tad leaky. Even the tightest of ships needs a little upkeep every now and then.
But for those like the Richmond Hill Historical Society that runs the museum and its president, Sarah Volker, the worry is not that the maintenance won’t get done. It’s that the community will cease to remember why it needs to be done in the first place.
The little white building on the side of Ford Avenue just past Timber Trail Road is one of the only historical buildings in the city that has remained largely as it was intended. The schoolroom where some of Richmond Hill’s oldest residents learned their ABC’s is now home to a collection of Civil War artifacts — donations from generous members and volunteers.
“We’re your grandmother’s attic,” Volker said. “But we’re always looking for new ways to upgrade — to be better, to tell the story better. So we’re always in a state of flux — on the inside of the building, anyway.”
The outside of the building tells a different story.
“We noticed some problems with the ceiling a couple years ago,” Volker continued. “We had to keep buckets in the fireplace even when it wasn’t raining outside. And then there was the rot in the windows. Then, finally, the paint started chipping away.”
But the Historical Society’s budget is a skimpy one and doesn’t provide for any extravagances outside of basic upkeep and payment of the utility bill. Still, the group won’t charge admission even though it might easily alleviate the museum’s financial burden.
“This is an all-volunteer organization, and we need money to survive,” Volker said. “But the city is generous enough to help us out, so it’s important that there’s free access to anyone that wants to come in. It’s a library of history for local residents — a store of information that they might not find anywhere else.”
And while the Historical Society does receive financial assistance from the city each year, and the building’s rent is close to nothing thanks to its partnership with nearby Magnolia Manor, Volker said she still can’t come close to the nearly $8,000 in repairs the building needs in order to return to its original luster. Thankfully, she’s not alone.
The Historical Preservation department at Savannah Technical College headed by professor Stephen Hartley is here to help, and he’s brought a class of eager students ready to get their hands dirty. In fact, they start almost immediately with Saturday paint-chipping marathons that bring them together with local volunteers.
“My students are going to do almost all the work,” said Hartley. “I’ll help them out as much as I can, but when we go out into the community to work, it’s a great learning experience because I just can’t replicate a hundred years of damage in a lab. The only way they’re going to learn is by doing it.”
And by “doing it,” Hartley means that the students will spend almost every weekend of their summer vacation prepping, chipping, priming and painting the museum. And because the work is for a class project, the only cost to the Historical Society is the price of the tools and the materials. It’s a partnership that Volker can’t thank the students at Savannah Tech enough for.
If all goes according to plan, the Richmond Hill Museum’s renovations should be completed by the end of July. That’s when the building is set to make its small-screen debut as the star of a historical documentary produced by former local newscaster and veteran television journalist Michael Jordan. In it, Jordan plans to use a series of oral histories from local residents who used the building throughout its life span.
For information on donating or helping the students carry out the renovations, visit the Richmond Hill Historical Society’s website at www.richmondhillhistoricalsociety.org