Gabe to Pooh: Don't touch my building

The two brick buildings have shared a wall since around 1838. A century and a half later, a judge has ordered them separated, but the City of Charlottesville has issued a stop-work order to prevent the split.

Caught between the conflicting government edicts is Marybess "Pooh" Johnson, the owner of 222-224 Court Square. Since March 5, she's been fined $100 a day under a contempt order and forced to post a $200,000 bond for not removing the parts of her building that encroach– even if it's just an inch– onto her neighbor's property.

Her neighbor is developer Gabe Silverman, who sued to have her stop using his wall, and an 1838 covenant gives him the right to do so.

Meanwhile, Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and the state just kicked off a $3.4-million overhaul of Court Square, the city's oldest section, and preservationists are appalled.

Back in 1838, Andrew Leitch of 230 Court Square– the building now owned by Silverman's Townsquare Associates– gave Richard Matthews permission to use Leitch's southern wall as 224 Court Square's northern wall. The covenant also included the right to revoke that permission.

And so things stood for 157 years until 1995, when Silverman revoked the license and asked Johnson to remove her building from his. In 1998, he filed suit against Johnson and her brother, Harry C. McCray Jr. In February 2002, Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Edward Hogshire ordered the split.

"Who would want to detach these two historic buildings?" Johnson asks. "Anyone who is reasonable thinks this is outrageous."

The normally preservation-minded Silverman maintains it's a safety concern. He says that at the rear of Johnson's building, "You see that wall falling off toward my building."

After Silverman's company bought 230 Court Square in 1995, "We decided to put an addition on the building," he recalls. "We had preliminary drawings done, and we said to Johnson, 'We need our wall back.'"

Besides being attached, Johnson's building also occupies some of Silverman's property, as little as three-quarters of an inch in the front and up to seven inches in the back, according to Johnson. Silverman disputes those numbers; he says the encroachment varies from four inches to a foot.

Inside 224 Court Square, Johnson has built a new sheetrock wall that does not touch Silverman's wall on the interior. But the outside is still connected, and she worries about creating a space between the buildings.

"He wants to see daylight," she says. "That allows rats, debris, and rain. We'd have to rip out this wall, come in a foot, and put up a masonry wall. The weather would destroy our building. Of course, he'd probably like that."

Kathleen Kilpatrick at the state Division of Historic Resources in Richmond says old city buildings often share a wall, but she's never before heard of a removal covenant.

"That struck me as unusual," says Kilpatrick, who's "deeply concerned" about the court-ordered separation and calls Johnson's property a rare surviving example of a 19th Century residence and shop duplex.

"The whole thing is ridiculous sounding to me," says Mary Jo Scala, a city planner who advises the Board of Architectural Review. When Johnson applied for a demolition permit to separate the buildings, Scala told her she needed BAR approval and initiated the stop-work order.

"What she's being asked to do," fumes Scala, "is totally contrary to what BAR would do." Scala says she acknowledges the legal issue, but points out, "There's also the issue of, do you protect these old buildings on Court Square?"

Johnson's demolition permit goes to BAR on August 19, after The Hook's deadline. And she goes back to court September 15 to try to relieve her contempt fine.

Perplexing to some is why Silverman, who's rehabilitated historic structures like Union Station, insists the Court Square buildings be separated.

Johnson believes it's a "vendetta" because she refused four times to sell the building to him.

"That's bullshit," retorts Silverman. "I'm not interested in buying anything from that woman. It's not a vendetta. I just want the buildings legally separated."

Silverman continues, "I have no desire to screw up a historic building. The issue is, it's time to clear things off."

Johnson says she gets asked all the time, "What did you do to ever do to Gabe Silverman?"

"You could ask, did she piss me off?" says Silverman cryptically. Otherwise, he refers to many aspects of the long-running suit as "a giggle."

Preservationist Kilpatrick is less amused. "This kind of 'split-the-baby' judgment didn't really work for the baby."