FORSYTH -- When local residents decided seven years ago to challenge Forsyths planning and zoning decision to allow Wal-Mart to demolish three historic homes in the city, it seemed a pipe dream to think those houses would still be standing today.
But at least two of the three houses are not just standing. Theyre thriving, thanks to the right owners, historical preservationists and, ironically enough, Wal-Mart.
In October, retired educators Percell and Veronica Kelley bought the Pace House off Indian Springs Drive and renovated it. It wasnt their first choice, however. They originally fell in love with a house next door known as the Kyte House, but it had fallen into such a state of disrepair that they passed on it.
But now that the couple has restored the Pace House to near mint condition, theyve sold it and will soon move next door into the Kyte House, their original dream.
The Kyte House, built circa 1914 and spanning 4,400 square feet, still needs excessive repairs.
All the wiring had been pulled out, Percell Kelley said. (People) had stolen it for the copper. They took the AC and heating units, too.
The couple, however is fully prepared for the challenges they face with the Kyte House. After all, they battled many of the same issues with the Pace House.
The Pace House formerly was owned by Mayor Jimmy Pace, and before him, the Hardin family. The Kelleys bought the house from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation for $15,000, then put in about $34,000 in improvements.
Fight to preserve historic homes
Repairs would not have been possible without the efforts of preservationists Georgianne Bearden and Mary Aiken Wright, who spearheaded the efforts to save the three homes, the only ones to still stand on Indian Springs Drive.
It was Bearden who first challenged the citys decision to rezone that neighborhood to allow the Super Wal-Mart to be built in a lot near the houses. Bearden argued the city didnt give proper legal notice.
In little towns like this one, they dont always cross the Ts or dot the Is, she said. When I found out the houses were going to be torn down and the Wal-Mart was going to be there, I couldnt believe it. I only found out because one day the surveyors were out there.
Wright, a member of the Hardin family whose distant relations owned the houses, joined the fight soon after to save the homes.
On a whim, she decided to fly to Bentonville, Ark., to meet with Wal-Marts corporate officials.
Mary Aiken got them to commit to come to Forsyth, because no one (from the corporate offices) had actually been here, Bearden said. They flew seven executives here. They came here to see what everyone was talking about.
Wright said she never called ahead to make sure she would be received at the company. She had hoped to meet with the companys top executive, but instead, met with junior officials.
I was so upset with the fact that they were going to that location, she said. I tried to meet with the president. ... I didnt even tell anyone I was going. Nobody knew.
Once the Wal-Mart executives arrived, they saw what all the fuss was about.
They said, This isnt right, Bearden said.
Initially, Bearden said, the best the preservationists were hoping for was Wal-Mart agreeing to a tree line between the store and the residential area to act as a natural sight and sound barrier.
But once the company officials saw the houses, they decided not only to spare them from demolition, but also to donate them in November 2010 to the Georgia Trust to help preserve them, along with $50,000 in cash. Wal-Mart even built a wrought-iron fence between the backyards of the houses and the store.
Traci Clark, spokeswoman for the Georgia Trust, said the organizations revolving loan fund has been around for more than 20 years and has helped save 26 historic properties across the state during that time.
Even with the houses spared from the wrecking ball, all three properties were in bad shape and needed an overhaul.
However, Clark said, the challenge is finding new owners who understand the challenges of owning a historic home and can stay within the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Secretary of the Interiors office.
Enter the Kelleys. The couple had owned historic homes in the past and were looking to move to Forsyth to take care of Veronicas ailing mother. The couple searched in vain for a historic house to buy until they saw the properties on Indian Springs Drive.
The (Kyte House) was too much work in the beginning -- too open to pioneer through, Percell Kelley said. A lot of people make the mistake when they buy a historic house that they want it to be like a brand-new house.
For those who had fought so hard to preserve the houses -- Bearden said she had her windows broken and her own house shot with paintballs during the early years of the fight with the city -- having a couple that understands the uniqueness of the properties is the proverbial cherry on top of the sundae.
They are like a blessing, she said of the Kelleys. People who love old properties can put up with the strange things about these houses.
Wright said the Kelleys have taken the time to find the original mantlepieces and staircases as they restored the Pace House.
The couple said the challenges of restoring the homes seemed daunting at first.
We say it about every house -- what have we gotten ourselves into? Percell Kelley said, laughing. When you see a wall falling down, its scary. The average person or novice gets scared. Its probably better if they get scared, because theyll stay away from (buying a historic house). It becomes overwhelming.
Bearden, who owns her own historic home just across the street, said owning such a house can be a strain on a marriage.
It takes a strong marriage to do things like this, she said. Youve got to be a team.
The Kelleys may not be done yet. Percell Kelley said hes been in talks with the Georgia Trust about possibly buying the third house on the street, the Miller House, which the organization is hoping to sell for $20,000. Kelley said once he and Veronica move into the Kyte House, theyd like to buy the Miller House and turn it into an antiques store.
People have been happy to see what weve done, he said. Theyre happy to see these houses saved. A lot of people weve talked to have so many happy memories about visiting these houses when they were kids. They dont want to see anything changed.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.