Kiah House nomination approved for National Register of Historic Places


The Kiah House in Savannah's Cuyler-Brownville neighborhood will be added to the Georgia Register of Historic Places following approval of the Historic Savannah Foundation's nomination for the property.

“It was a joy to discover this place,” said National Register Review Board member Jackie Tyson, prior to Friday morning’s unanimous vote.
The structure was built in 1913, but significant alterations were made in 1959, including the installation of a large 2-story window on the front façade. The nomination considered Friday centered on the “period of significance” between 1959-1974 and the building’s operation as the first Black-owned museum.

The museum was open to all races during a period of racial segregation across the country, and was also notable for its association with its founder, Virginia Jackson Kiah, a nationally recognized artist who was inspired to open the “museum for the masses” after her own experiences of being excluded from visiting museums as a child during the era of Jim Crow in Baltimore.

The review board’s approval is the latest milestone for the vacant property that has deteriorated significantly after being tied up for more than two-decades in Chatham County Probate Court following Kiah’s death in 2001.

In July, the Savannah City Council approved an agreement with a nonprofit developer, The Galvan Foundation, to provide $500,000 towards the acquisition and restoration of the property for use once again as a museum and community organizing space. The partnership was selected among competing proposals by the previous owner, the Historic Savannah Foundation, which had hoped to find a preservation minded buyer for the property it acquired in 2022, after Kiah’s heirs signed off on the sale.

On Thursday, Galvan’s Daniel Osofsky, said the nonprofit developer is still in the planning phase of the restoration project, but they expect to start work in the fall.

The archival work documenting the Kiah Museum’s history will be ongoing,  in conjunction with Galvan’s restoration, according to African Diaspora Museology Institute (ADMI) Founder Deborah Johnson-Simon, a key figure behind the years-long effort to raise awareness and restore the property.
Johnson-Simon added during the board’s discussion that Virginia’s Kiah’s husband, Calvin Kiah, a former Dean of Education at Savannah State College who was active in the education and civil rights activities, played a significant part in the home’s history.

“It is the mission of ADMI to continue to tell the Kiah legacy,” she said. “We will not rest until we’ve grown up the next generation to tell the story.”

Once included on the Georgia Trust’s 2021 list of ‘Places in Peril’, the home’s latest national recognition comes after the Savannah City Council designated the Kiah House as a local historic structure in July 2021 and subsequent approval of ADMI’s request to install a historical marker outside the building.

HSF will next host a special discussion on May 16 of the nomination effort by Sarah Ward and Becki Harkness of Ward Architecture + Preservation, the project’s architectural firm that researched and prepared the nomination.

Ward said Friday that HSF has an easement on the property and is committed to preserving and reopening the museum as envisioned by Kiah in 1959, in response to some of the board member’s comments that they hoped the house would be protected as it was during the artist’s time.

“This is going to be a very public building accessible to the people just like Virginia intended,” Ward said.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the National Register Review Board approved HSF's application to add the Kiah House to the Georgia Register of Historic Places. The original article incorrectly reported the property was approved for the National Register of Historic Places. 

Eric Curl

Connect Savannah Freelance Correspondent I Eric Curl is probably reading building permits, sales records and meeting agendas. He writes Property Matters to share what he finds. You can find the column, along with other stories, cartoons and quizzes about local matters at Savannahagenda.com.
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