Monday, November 14, 2011

Are we still tearing down Knoxville? St. John's Episcople says, "Yes!" at 710 and 712 Walnut Street

710 and 712 Walnut Street, Knoxville, November 2011
I'm no historian and, though I've been coming to downtown Knoxville since the nineteen-eighties, I've only lived downtown for just over two years. I can't call the names of the buildings that have been lost over the years in the manner that Kim Trent or Jack Neely (whose latest comment on this issue can be found here) would be able to effortlessly recite. Still, a walk around downtown reveals large swaths of surface parking lots and each of those plots once held buildings where people lived, worked and enjoyed life in the city. As each of those parking lots emerged, someone involved likely proclaimed that we were making progress, moving forward into the modern era.

Sometime in the last decade or so that trend has reversed in our city. We've come to better understand what was lost and to more highly value the older structures that remain. Largely, Knoxvillians have come to value their city and its history. While not every building is considered beautiful or, perhaps, even historic, the idea of demolition has increasingly become anathema to so many people, one might assume that era in Knoxville's past was simply that: past.

Close-up of 712 Walnut Street, Knoxville
In this context, it comes as a surprise, if not a shock to hear that a group housed in one of the most architecturally interesting buildings, St. Johns Episcopal Church, would move to destroy two 1920's era buildings at 710 and 712 Walnut Street. St. Johns has, of course, participated in the destruction of other buildings downtown as they expanded their parking lots over the years. But churches are not perfect and historical behavior may not necessarily be fairly judged by current mores. Times change. But then, they submitted a request that is reminiscent of that prior era.

The contention on the part of the church is that the buildings have deteriorated severely and are in need of very expensive repairs the church cannot afford. Also noted was the fact that the Interdenominational Bible Institute which has used the buildings is moving out. The minister has been quoted as saying the buildings are "ugly." Further noted was that they are particularly ugly when viewed from the rear.

View of 710 and 712 Walnut from the rear
Of course, they are only visible from the rear because the buildings which used to hide that view were destroyed by the church years ago. Further, one has to wonder how much deterioration happened on the church's watch? Was this a purposeful deterioration simply to eventually rid themselves of buildings they did not want?

When I first heard about the request it was assumed the church wanted more parking. Knowing that would not be received well, plans were drawn up and presented that include a fence and a courtyard which they suggest will be accessible to the public. They further imply they will build on the spot at an undetermined time in the future. I would not be surprised to learn that the same statement was made about previous demolitions downtown including many sites that remain parking lots even now.

712 Walnut, Home of the Interdenominational Bible Institute
It seems the whole thing has happened suddenly and with no opportunity for groups such as Knox Heritage to find alternatives. I find it completely inconceivable that someone would not want those buildings if they were offered for sale. Buildings in worse condition have certainly been preserved by people who want to do so. I think the smaller of the two buildings could make an amazingly beautiful residence which is what it was origninally. With the inlaid patterns in the brick, its arched entryway and its proximity to the heart of the city, someone would likely be inclined to make it home.

So, this is another case where we have to decide who we are and who we want to be. Are we people who continue to tear down the past? The Downtown Design Review Board makes the next decision this Wednesday at 4:00 at their meeting in the Small Assembly Room at the City County Building. The recommendation on the table is for demolition. I'm taking off work early to be there and I'm hoping the decision hasn't already been made. Why not consider joining me there?

Interestingly and somewhat ironically, there are two other meetings I wanted to mention which also happen this week. The first is that CBID (the Central Business Improvement District) is beginning quarterly night meetings which, I assume, are in response to the concerns of some downtown residents that our voices aren't heard at the monthly meetings because they are held in the middle of the day. The plan is for Residential Quality of Life meetings which will allow residents an ongoing point of communication with CBID. I hope so. I'm a little disappointed that a regular meeting each quarter wasn't moved to the evening. I'm hoping this is an informative meeting in which major efforts and issues of CBID are elucidated and the majority of the members of the board are present to hear from residents in some organized fashion. This meeting will be held at 5:30 on November 16 in the Knoxville Chamber/CBID office at 17 Market Square.

The other meeting is the Knox Heritage Annual Meeting and Preservation Awards to be held Thursday night, November 17, at the Bijou. Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation will speak and awards for outstanding preservation efforts will be presented.

Come to all three meetings and be involved in your city.  
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At November 14, 2011 at 3:20 PM , Blogger Andrea said...

I am truly disgusted with St. John's over this. There is no excuse for their behavior. I hope they will do the right thing and sell the buildings to someone who will love them and renovate them.

I will hopefully see you at the meetings on Wednesday this week! I'm looking forward to the Residential Quality of Life meeting.

At November 14, 2011 at 9:07 PM , Blogger Kevin said...

Urban Guy - Agree 110% with you regarding the church's desired demo plans - Very Sad for Knoxville. As for the CBID Meetings, the 2112 CBID meetings are scheduled as follows: Jan, April, July and October are scheduled for 5:30PM to garner more residential involvement.


At November 14, 2011 at 9:41 PM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

Hey Andrea, I hope to see you there and finally meet, personally. Kevin, I hope we can stop it, but I'm not sure of the chances. Kudos to my favorite CBID Board member who, no doubt, had something to do with that schedule you outlined above. Is that in addition to the "Residential Quality of Life" meetings or are the two to be merged?

At November 15, 2011 at 6:55 AM , Blogger Cindy Ellison said...

Knoxville Urban Guy, this is a very important post here. It makes me sad and mad. As my mother-in-law reminds me often, "a church is a business, don't ever forget it.". My 89 year old still-sharp-as-a-tack mother-in-law, I might add. ;~) I must keep forgetting it since she is still reminding me. We expect better from churches!

At November 15, 2011 at 7:03 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I like historic places and all. If the church owns the building and the city says its OK(historic district laws). Who are we to say what they should or shouldn't do with their property. This is America. I doubt anybody would appreciate someone telling them they can't rebuild their home, historic or not.

At November 15, 2011 at 10:37 AM , Anonymous John said...

Urban Guy, thanks for posting this. To the anonymous poster above, I would say this. We as a society accept certain strictures on our rights. If you live in the city, for instance, you cannot build a garage on your property larger than 750 sq. ft. It's your property, but your neighbors have an interest in not having a warehouse in their neighborhood. By the same logic, just because the church owns two buildings doesn't mean they have the right to destroy the fabric of the neighborhood. Existing downtown comes with its obligations to the neighborhood.

At November 15, 2011 at 7:42 PM , Anonymous Nicholas said...

@ Anon

I know it's in fashion to repeat these pseudo Libertarian/classical liberalist ideas of property rights and "this is 'murica" speak, but look at what that did to our cities in the 1960s and 1970s. There was no concept of collective good and people wanted to get in their big cars and the built environment didn't matter anymore because we (anti-socially) avoided it. Now, there is a huge shift in mentality nationally toward a more reasoned approach (mix of individualism and collective ideal) but these apparently have not caught on in the hinterlands and thus small cities like Knoxville will continue to lag behind in livability. /rant

At November 15, 2011 at 9:44 PM , Blogger John in Knoxville said...

Urban Guy, I hope to join you at the meeting. This whole fiasco has finally managed to spark the genesis of my own blog. Knoxville Lost and Found. . I've managed to gather the proper permissions from the McClung/East Tennessee Historical Society, so it's time. I sincerely hope that these buildings can be preserved.

At November 15, 2011 at 10:35 PM , Blogger Knoxville Urban Guy said...

Hey All,
Thanks for the comments. John, you'll have to let us know how to find your blog. I have to say in reference to the above that I believe we all have an obligation to each other. While John D. Rockerfeller technically had the right to level Williamsburg when he bought it, didn't it enrich us all that he didn't? A part of our past in the form of a building is only partially ours. We are caretakers for the next generation.


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