Funds sought for Savannah's Kiah House Museum building restoration and preservation

Campaign goes live to save dilapidated structure that was a showcase for Black history

click to enlarge The Kiah House Museum building is considered an important site of Savannah’s Black history. - NOELLE WIEHE/CONNECT SAVANNAH
Noelle Wiehe/Connect Savannah
The Kiah House Museum building is considered an important site of Savannah’s Black history.
A Savannah building on W. 36th Street was once recognized as one of the Treasures of America, but now, while the roof caves in and creatures make their way in and out of the structure, it has made less prestigious lists and is losing its charm.

Now the community is raising money through a GoFundMe campaign to preserve the Kiah House Museum building as an important site of Savannah’s Black history.

“Since its establishment in 1959, it was unique in its design for its historical purpose, yet for 20 years it has been allowed to deteriorate to the point of shame instead of raising pride in this historic community,” said Deborah Johnson-Simon, the founder and CEO of the African Diaspora Museology Institute, and the GoFundMe campaign organizer.

The Kiah House Museum building was built in 1910. It served as a home to Calvin Kiah and Virginia Kiah in 1951, who lived on the second floor. The Kiah Museum was opened in 1959 on the first floor, and was one of the first Black-founded museums in Savannah. Notable past visitors to the museum include Rosa Parks and Margaret Burroughs.

click to enlarge Laura Seifert, founder and director of Savannah Archaeological Alliance, points out restoration needed at the Kiah House Museum building. - NOELLE WIEHE/CONNECT SAVANNAH
Noelle Wiehe/Connect Savannah
Laura Seifert, founder and director of Savannah Archaeological Alliance, points out restoration needed at the Kiah House Museum building.
The site has risen from the bottom of Savannah’s “100 Worst Properties List” to close to the top, Johnson-Simon said. “We just want to see it loved,” said Laura Seifert, founder and director of Savannah Archaeological Alliance.

The museum housed artworks, historic-preservation pieces, a fountain from the Bijou Theatre in the backyard, and natural-history specimens. The objects and artifacts that comprised the collection can be attributed to Virginia Kiah and her mother.

The Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum honors Virginia’s mother, and was opened in 1978 in Baltimore, Maryland.

“Her mother promised Virginia, after they were turned away from entrance into a museum in Baltimore, that one day she would not only be able to be an artist, she would also have a museum,” Johnson-Simon said. “She promised her daughter both of these things, and she made good on her promise.”

Johnson-Simon said that in the case of the Kiah House, not only has the building been neglected, but also the legacy, the significance of the museum, and its founders.

Calvin Kiah came to Savannah State College and championed the Education Department, later integrating Georgia State University as the first person of color to hold the position of Vice President of Research and Academic Affairs. He is credited with being instrumental in increasing opportunities for minorities within the university.

Virginia Kiah was a civil-rights leader and artist who specialized in portraiture, as well as a local schoolteacher. Calvin Kiah passed away in 1994, and the building has been in probate ever since Virginia Kiah’s death in 2001.

The Kiah House Museum building has been placed on a list of blighted properties in Savannah, and is now being assessed on blight tax. Taxes have been paid, but nothing has been done to bring the building up to code, Johnson-Simon said, leaving the building threatened with demolition.

“This led the African Diaspora Museology Institute and the Friends of Kiah to become proactive in its advocacy for the Kiah, and raise the necessary funds to prevent the demolition of the building and secure historic-landmark status enabling a dedicated buyer to purchase and restore the site,” Johnson-Simon said.

click to enlarge Painted rocks placed on the lawn of the Kiah House express support for the building's restoration. - NOELLE WIEHE/CONNECT SAVANNAH
Noelle Wiehe/Connect Savannah
Painted rocks placed on the lawn of the Kiah House express support for the building's restoration.
The campaign money raised will be used to perform emergency property maintenance to avoid demolition, and to complete key research to obtain historical-landmark status.

“The other homes in this block are absolutely beautiful and well-loved, and we’d like to see this to be equally so,” Seifert said.

The GoFundMe has a goal of raising $80,000, and as of press time, over $5,000 had been donated through the campaign by about 60 donors.

The Kiah House Museum building is located at 505 W. 36th Street, between W. Broad and Burroughs. Visit gofundme.com/f/historic-kiah-house-restoration-campaign for information on the campaign or to donate.

About The Author

Noelle Wiehe

Noelle Wiehe is a dream-chasing journalist from Ohio. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts with a focus in journalism from the University of Cincinnati and attended the United States Army's Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland. A U.S. Army veteran, Wiehe has a passion for sharing stories of local heroes,...
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