A fire Sunday night severely damaged the historic Van Buren Hospital building on Elm Street to the extent that Statesboro’s fire chief thinks it may have to be taken down.
But the owner of the property, Bulloch County Board of Education member and retired educator Glennera Martin, said she is holding out hope for a restoration. Dr. Harvey Van Buren, Statesboro’s first African American physician, opened his Van Buren Sanitarium in December 1918 and continued to practice medicine there until 1964, the year he died.
The fire in the 102-year-old, two-story wooden structure was reported to the Statesboro Fire Department around 9 p.m. As usual with structure fires, the Bulloch County Fire Department also responded. Ultimately firefighters brought five fire engines and used the SFD’s tower truck to shower water into the building from above after they determined it was no longer safe to enter, said Statesboro Fire Chief Tim Grams.
Monday morning the main outer walls were still standing. But much of the roof had collapsed, and a portion of an exterior wall of the single-story wing in back had burned away.
“There was significant damage and probably catastrophic, complete loss,” Grams said initially. “They’ll probably end up having to tear it down.”
A little later he added that, not being a structural engineer, he hesitates to call a standing structure a total loss until it undergoes further inspection.
But his department placed “Fire Line: Do Not Cross” tape around the entire lot, including the yards, because the property was at that point considered structurally unsound, he said. The Fire Department and Statesboro Police Department are working together on the investigation.
An investigation involving the police is a step further than the “cause and origin determination” the Fire Department performs after every fire. This step indicates that local public safety officials – not involving the State Fire Marshal’s Office at this point with a building of this type – suspect there may have been malicious intent or actions and are seeking to confirm this or rule it out.
“We definitely have some indicators that have pointed toward us needing to do a full investigation and take a look at some things,” Grams said.
The building was not connected to electrical power. Asked if anybody had been living in it, Grams indicated he wasn’t sure.
“Our understanding is there was nobody legally living there,” he said. “Now, obviously we’re investigating to see if somebody was in there illegally, somebody squatting or just what the situation was.”
‘So much history’
During Van Buren’s medical career the building was his family home, doctor’s office and hospital under one roof. The two-story wooden structure later was used as rental housing, and then sat vacant for years.
Martin, the current owner, and her twin sister, Vera Richmond, were born in the building in 1943, when it was the Van Buren Hospital. The doctor’s wife, Hazel Van Buren, later was Martin’s ninth-grade English teacher.
Interviewed around the corner Monday on Van Buren Street, Martin said she bought the building and several neighboring houses from the late doctor’s family 25 years or more ago. She maintained the former hospital building successfully as a rental house until it was damaged by another fire, started by a tenant, years ago, she said.
Firefighters informed Martin of the latest fire while it was still in progress Sunday night.
“I was heartbroken, because there’s just so much history there,” she said Monday, looking at the damaged building from the street.
She said she wanted to see what can be restored of the building but that it was not insured.
“I’m trying to find some hope, by all means, because I want to continue to give the late Dr. Harvey Van Buren credit for the great things that he did for Bulloch County,” Martin said. “He came here from Sumter, South Carolina, and he came on a mission to help people. There was a flu epidemic here all over the county. He went to those homes and saved people.”
Van Buren also made house calls to deliver babies when many were born at home, she noted.
In early 2016, a Georgia Southern University interior design class took on the Van Buren Hospital as a learning project and made extensive measurements, drawings and notes. It had already been vacant for some time and had some boarded-up interior windows and missing wallboard sections, according to a Jan. 25, 2016 Statesboro Herald story.
Also that year, in a presentation to the Bulloch County Historical Society, an employee of Statesboro’s city planning and development office noted that the building had been designed for Van Buren by Wallace A. Rayfield, the second formally educated black architect in the United States.
Student groups visited Elm Street to see the historic structure each February for Black History Month as recently as 2019, Martin said.