As the town around it has grown in leaps and bounds, both in population and development, the Ghirardi House remains essentially unchanged on a grassy hill in Heritage Park since it was moved there in 2002.
It’s a source of frustration for Rita Ghirardi, now 94. In the weeks before her husband’s death, they envisioned the building as one day housing a museum commemorating the original Italian immigrants to League City, she said.
Instead, the home has sat deteriorating for almost 20 years.
“It is frustrating,” she said. “Why would I give my mother- and father-in-law’s home to have it sitting on a hill boarded up?”
This year was supposed to be different. The city council in its 2019 fiscal budget included $175,000 meant to renovate the house, which dates back to at least 1918 when the Ghirardi family bought it from another League City settler.
But city administrators announced to the city council that project assessments found asbestos and lead in the home and that it might eventually cost almost $1 million to turn the historic property into a museum.
The news has given some council members pause over spending so much money on something nonessential after passing $145 million in bonds, and reignited a discussion about preserving history in a city that’s rapidly changing.
“What we are trying to do is admirable,” Councilman Nick Long said. “But it just doesn’t make economic sense.”
The city council accepted Rita Ghirardi’s donation of the home in April 2002, shortly after her husband’s death. The city paid $8,500 to move the house from its original location at the corner of FM 518 and Louisiana Street to the lush field now called Heritage Park, 1220 Coryell Street, said Sarah Greer Osborne, spokeswoman for the city.
The Ghirardi family purchased the home from another family, the Kellys, in 1918. The Kellys had bought the land for $155 in 1910 from J.C. League, the founder of League City.
The two-bedroom house, which is just more than 1,100 square feet, stayed on its original site at the corner of FM 518 and Louisiana Street for almost 100 years.
Black-and-white photos show the farmhouse with nothing but empty land behind it and a 1940s car parked out front.
Since it was moved to Heritage Park, the house has been virtually untouched aside from when the council in 2007 spent about $10,000 to have staff make some basic repairs, such as lattice work, adding shingles to the roof, fixing concrete and repairing some of the back porch, Greer Osborne said.
“At the time they accepted the home, I think the council was committed,” said Raymond Bartels, 72, a League City resident and descendant of several of the original Italian families, who has a keen interest in seeing the museum become reality.
“But priorities and people have changed since then.”
The issue of what to do about the Ghirardi House, however, is anything but straightforward.
Angie Steelman, the city’s director of budget and project management, in her presentation to the council in July, suggested breaking the Ghirardi House renovation into three phases to spread the costs over several years.
The first phase, which could be done for about $175,000, would stabilize and rehabilitate the exterior of the building, including abating lead-based paint and asbestos, leveling out the house, repainting the exterior and replacing damaged and rotted siding, she said. Phase 2, would cost about $250,000 and would include renovating the interior and taking care of remaining exterior issues.
Finally, city officials would need to raise between $325,000 and $510,000 through philanthropy and grants to finish converting the building into a museum, she said.
But at least one expert in historical renovations believes the actual rehabilitation of the Ghirardi House could be accomplished for much less money.
“Absolutely, it could be done for less money,” said Steph McDougal, a League City resident who owns McDoux Preservation LLC and volunteers on the city’s historic commission. “They need to bring in people who specialize in historic buildings and can tell them what they really need to do.”
Although it’s impossible to tell exactly what the city should do without looking at the building, historic preservation experts rarely recommend removing lead paint and asbestos when they can both be encapsulated for less money, McDougal said.
It might, however, be a mistake to turn it into a museum, McDougal said.
For all of the concern about rising costs, the city council ultimately didn’t take any sort of action on the project itself. Councilmen Hank Dugie and Chad Tressler, among others, recommended that city staff members should begin formulating long-term plans and ideas of what might eventually be done with the building.
“A museum is not sustainable,” Tressler said. “I would want the Ghirardi House to be a community asset. If this is something we are going to move forward with, I would want to see a comprehensive plan for Heritage Park.”
Mayor Pat Hallisey expressed frustration at how drawn out the process had become and wondered why more than the meager group at the July meeting hadn’t shown up in support of the town’s history.
“It’s hard to justify the money, but I’m a little disappointed the historical society is not here,” he said. “What does it say about us that we don’t care about the previous decisions this council made to take the home?
“Money is the nature of the beast in this day and time, and if history means that little to this town, maybe it’s not worth doing. It’s our job to question the cost, but why has everyone else given up?”
The city’s historical society was not invited to the meeting and would only have been able to say the house is city property, said Ronnie Richards, the president of the society.
But the society does support and encourage historic preservation and applauds the city for taking responsibility, Richards said.
What to do about the Ghirardi House is a discussion that likely will continue for at least the foreseeable future. But as Rita Ghirardi nears her 95th year on Earth next month, she recalls a conversation she had with her husband just the week before his death about the home, she said.
“I’ll never forget, he told me that I’d done many spectacular things in my life, but that I’m not going to pull this off,” she said. “He told me that I’m dealing with League City, and that they don’t want that old house.”
Now she hopes to be able to tell her husband when she meets him in the next life that she was ultimately successful in her mission to turn the family home into a museum, she said.
But it’s not just important to the Ghirardi family, Bartels said. The descendants of the other Italian families also hope the city moves forward with the project.
“League City started something here,” he said. “They need to finish it. If they didn’t intend to do that, then they shouldn’t have accepted it.”