Inside HSF’s Efforts To Save The Kiah House

Virginia Jackson Kiah 

For over two years now, Historic Savannah has been working diligently, but quietly, to save the home of celebrated artist, educator, and activist, Virginia Jackson Kiah. The house, which has sat vacant for over 20 years since Kiah’s death, has long been the victim of neglect and an ongoing, slow-moving probate process.

Concerned by the advanced state of deterioration and the endangered status of the property, HSF successfully secured a contract to purchase this endangered landmark in July 2020, after a year of correspondence and negotiation with the attorney for the estate.  Closing on the property has been on hold indefinitely ever since, due to the still-ongoing probate process. Since signing the contract, HSF has anxiously kept a close eye on the property to ensure it does not sustain any further damage, vandalism, or worse.

“While the house is largely empty, it is not devoid of life,” says Ryan Arvay, HSF’s Director of Preservation & Historic Properties.  Back in June 2019, Arvay was one of the first people granted access to the house in many years.  “When you enter you are initially struck by the ruinous nature of the building, but then you start to notice other things,” says Arvay.  “The personal effects that tell this remarkable story.”  A piano still sits on the landing at the top of the stairs, rumored to be where Kiah played along with such visitors to the museum as Duke Ellington.  A brightly colored floral blouse hangs in a closet, still as vibrant as the woman who once wore it.  Scattered ephemera bearing Kiah’s name lies on the kitchen table, and underfoot.  Children’s artwork is strewn around the house, representing the countless students Kiah taught and inspired over her life.

 

Virginia Jackson Kiah was an accomplished portrait artist.  She and her husband Calvin moved to Savannah in the early 1950s. Stymied by the racist segregation laws of her day, Kiah was not allowed admittance to museums throughout the South, let alone to exhibit her work.  In 1959, Kiah founded her own museum inside the house at 505 W. 36th Street in Savannah.  A museum that would welcome all visitors and feature artwork of all artists, regardless of race.  It became a vital community gathering place, hosting artists, politicians, entertainers, and the general public for decades until Kiah’s death in 2001.

Much about this property is still uncertain – when the probate will be complete, when HSF will be allowed to close on the property, what the new use will be, what use will best serve the community. etc.  In the future, HSF plans to engage the community in a discussion about what use(s) the public envisions.  “HSF is dedicated to saving the Kiah House.  We are standing by at the ready,” says Arvay. “There is such an important story to tell here…about resilience.  Not just Kiah herself, but also her house. HSF will do everything we can to make sure that both live on.”

Stay tune for more details as they emerge.

The Kiah Museum at 505 W. 36th Street as it appeared in the 1980s

Kiah was the subject of a large mural by popular local artist Panhandle Slim, which he installed on the front of the house.  It was removed by vandals in 2020.  The individual pieces were recovered and the mural now hangs in the library at Savannah State University.

Examples of portraits by Kiah, courtesy of SCAD Museum of Art

 

 

 

Ryan Arvay is HSF’s Director of Preservation & Historic Properties.  He can be reached at rarvay@myHSF.org.