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Daughter of Barker House architect reflects on Sawnee Mountain home’s potential demolition

 
POSTED: September 4, 2016 1:00 a.m.
Kelly Whitmire/

Babmi Parham shows off a hand-drawn rendering of the Barker House created by her father, Jim Barker.

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NORTH FORSYTH -- As Forsyth County wrestles with the future of the Barker House, family members of those who lived there have been caught in the middle.

“That house has just been a part of our family, and it really represents our dad,” said Bambi Parham, daughter of the house’s architect and original owner, Jim Barker. “When I found it was going to be torn down, I guess devastation is the word; sadness, anger, a lot of emotions ran through.”

The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners voted last week to move forward with demolition of the iconic structure, which is notable for its location on Sawnee Mountain and spaceship-like design.

On Thursday, commissioners decided to take another look at options for the house, which has since fallen into disrepair, after “a good bit of confusion and public outcry,” according to District 4 Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills.

Mills said she feels the public needs to be aware of the history of the property.

Barker, an architect who Parham estimated designed 300-400 churches across the Southeast, built the house as his dream home.

Parham said after her father’s death, her mother kept the house up for about a decade until it was too much to do. So she made the tough decision to sell the home.

“She decided to put it on the market. At the time, we thought a private individual would be the best way to go,” she said. “The very next day [after] it went on the market, the Trust for Public Land … approached her to buy it to keep it preserved.”

The county bought the house with help from the trust, a nonprofit that had previously helped the county acquire greenspace, in 2003 for about $1.8 million.

She said that at the time of the sale, county officials – none of whom are still on the BOC – told the family that the house would be used for a nature center.

“We felt really good about that,” Parham said. “We thought, ‘Well the government has it, but they’ll keep it, they’ll preserve it, and that is the best way to go,’ because a private individual, as we talked it through, they could sell it and develop it and it can be a mess. So we were glad to sell it to the county.”

In the years since that sale, the county went through several studies before finding that it would be too expensive to bring the house to up standards. Since then, the house has fallen into disrepair and been the victim of vandalism.

Parham said it was about a decade before she started feeling the property would not be preserved and hasn’t been back in years, despite living near the mountain.

“Probably not for 10 or 11 years,” she said. “Over a period of many years, we would go up there and it was not in bad shape. Now, we were beginning to see cracks in cement, maybe a little bit of mold and mildew, but nothing that was major.”

Parham said she did not think her family would have ever gone through with the sale had they known the result.

“No, it is absolutely … I need a stronger word than devastate,” she said. “A lot of people don’t understand because they think it’s just a house, but it wasn’t just a house. It was a piece of art that my dad designed and built and such a loving, loving comfortable place.”

Since she had not been there in years, she learned about the planned destruction from Mills before commissioners took action.

“When I heard the news, it just broke my heart, everybody’s heart,” Parham said. “All the family wants to go up one more time, and the county has promised we can. I don’t know if it’s a good idea though, seeing it in the kind of condition I’m afraid I’ll see it in.”

She said she has also received a support from community members who want the house to be preserved.

“[I’ve heard] just an outcry that this iconic, it’s a piece of art, it’s something that’s a part of Forsyth County and Cumming and they don’t want to see it torn down,” Parham said. “I’d say that’s the majority of the feedback I’ve gotten; leave it, do something with it.”

Overall, Parham said she felt the county could have done something to preserve the house.

“I do believe that they could have kept it up, not at a huge expense,” she said. “They can’t fix it now, I’m sure it would cost a lot of money to get it back into shape, but if they kept it up along the way, I don’t think it would have been a huge expense.”

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