The historic Citizens Bank building on the corner of Dillingham and Broad streets in Phenix City is the subject of new interest — not all of it good.
The two-story building sits just southwest of the former Mead Coated Board Building, recently purchased by the Russell County Commission to be the new county courthouse. Constructed in 1909, the old bank was the only building left standing when the strip of structures along the northern side of Dillingham and eastern Broad were demolished 12 years ago for the construction of the Mead building.
Owned by Tommy and Tillman Pugh, the building is in a deteriorating condition. Pieces of its Renaissance revival architecture have crumbled and fallen in recent years. A month ago, an elderly man traveling west on Dillingham crashed his car into one of its walls.
It's safe to say some city and county officials wouldn't mind sending the building crashing. Phenix City and the Pughs are involved in a lawsuit that has stretched on for several years over the future of the building, with the city seeking condemnation of the structure.
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The judges in the Russell County Judicial Circuit have all recused themselves from the suit. Houston County District Court Judge Brad Mendheim of Dothan is the current judge in the case.
"The lawsuit is pending. The judge ruled in our favor to tear it down and then changed his mind and instructed the parties to come to some kind of settlement on it and we've not been able to," said City Attorney Jimmy Graham, when asked about the building's status. "Shortly, we're going to be filing a motion to have another hearing on it."
Co-owner Tommy Pugh said he and his brother feel they're in a tough situation.
"We'd like to restore it and put an office there," he said, "but we stay in court so much on this thing, it's got us pretty much jacked out. Here now with the county buying the other building, they would like to see it gone."
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Pugh said at one time the public sentiment was about 75 percent in favor of keeping the building. "But nobody wants to put any money up for the building," he said. "They want to obtain it through reverse actions and be done with it."
The brothers bought the old bank building for about $60,000 in 1987. It is in the Girard /Residential/Commercial Historic District and added in 1983 to the National Register of Historic Places. Mead had sought to buy the building at the time it was planning to build the Coated Board headquarters in the middle 1990s. But the two parties could not come to agreement on a price.
The building has been used for a variety of things over the years. At one time, Alcoholics Anonymous used its second floor for meetings. Fading drawings of fish on one side of the building suggest a pet shop once wasere located there.
County officials are worried other types of animals may be its current residents. The county commission last week discussed becoming part of the civil suit on the side of the city. The commission, which expects to be operating out of the former MeadWestvaco building around the first of the year, is wary of the conditions on the property with the likelihood of hundreds of citizens visiting the adjacent county offices daily.
"Reports are that the building is infested with bats and rats with the possibility of rabies," said County Administrator LeAnn Horne. "I fear for human safety, which is our primary concern, if those reports are accurate."
County Attorney Kenneth Funderburk told the commissioners last week that problems with vermin from the building could come into play once the county takes possession of the Mead property.
"Dealing with siding falling off, rats — there are just real problems that could affect the public," Funderburk said. "I'm exploring whether, if the city gets back active in the suit, we should join that proceeding because of the nuisance. Or if the city is not active, if we need to jump in to do something about that building."
Tommy Pugh said he and his brother will see the issue through to the end of the legal proceedings.
"We're not backing down, if that's what you're asking," he said. "I would like to renovate it . . . if I could use that money I use on lawyers, I could do it. The trouble of it is, they say its unsafe (structurally) and we've had engineers in there twice saying it's safe."