Pondering Preservation

What if an empty house has little to recommend saving it?

The house around the corner from mine needs a lot of love.

Or to be put out of its misery.

The exterior is a soggy, rotten, asbestos-ridden wreck. The porch has been torn off the face of the house, and a blue tarp flaps in the wind revealing a glimpse of the interior. Right away, pedestrians notice the floor and most of the north wall is missing. Rain pours into a basketball-sized hole in the roof. The front door, with original hardware still intact, stands agape. Most rooms are gutted. Blackened timbers suggest a small fire, like the kind a transient makes to keep warm on a cold night. Of the many abandoned houses in the neighborhood, this one is in the worst shape.

It's a smallish Victorian cottage on the edge of a slowly gentrifying historic district, so it's not completely far-fetched that a dedicated preservationist would buy the house with the idea to restore it to its former glory. It could be exhilarating, the challenge of taking a pile of junk and transforming it into a building full of natural light, good materials, and comfortable, functional spaces. It could be rewarding, on an emotional level, to rescue the "worst house on the block." But probably not monetarily rewarding.

Unfortunately, the owner, a real estate agent in Maryville who asked not to be named, bought the house last year hoping to flip it. When asked what attracted him to the house, he said "the price," which according to kgis.org was $1 (through a quitclaim deed).

He often buys and resells property, but this is his first time dealing with a house in a historic district. He seems frustrated with the "historical people" who he says have stalled work on the house. According to knoxmpc.org, the Knoxville Historic Zoning Commission must review applications for building permits in a historic overlay district and issue a Certificate of Appropriateness before rehabilitation can begin.

"There are so many loops to jump though," he says.

When pressed for a timeline, he says he hoped to have it "looking pretty" within one year of buying it. That would be in April, three months from now.

Really, this house is not a good candidate for a house flipping. Renovation would have to be an act of charity performed by an almost maniacally dedicated civic booster. Unlike the blighted George Barber-designed houses, restored in the 2000s by Knox Heritage, and sold for less than construction costs as part of a plan to improve the Parkridge neighborhood, this house has less of a case to recommend it for historic renovation grants.

"We might have to tear it down, unfortunately," the owner says. He is now afraid that to fix it up he would "have to spend more than it's worth."

Is it worth it?

Many preservations (and I think of myself as a preservationist most times) are reflexively anti-demolition.

The architecture critic Paul Goldberger says, "A lot of our belief in preservation comes from our fear of what will replace buildings that are not preserved; all too often we fight to save not because what we want to save is so good but because we know that what will replace it will be no better."

Many pre-World War II houses still standing today surprise me with their solid construction and quality details. Even a small, middle-class cottage like this one has carved bargeboards protecting the gables, brick fireplaces, and door fixtures embossed with an intricate floral pattern. Instead of today's plywood and Sheetrock, the builders used diagonal pine 2x6s as sub-wall and skinned the wall with lath and plaster. If you've ever tried to duplicate the work of a 1920s master plasterer, as I have, you know it requires a high level of skill to get a smooth, even wall with strips of wood, lime goo, horsehair, and a trowel. These details and methods would not occur in any replacement building due to cost, scarcity of resources, and loss of old knowledge.

Oh, hell. One can't rescue all the orphaned houses in the world. But after demolition, then what? Another thing this neighborhood has an abundance of are abandoned lots, former homesites, full of trash and inviting crime. As it stands, the house is so repellent it seems not even criminals want to hang out there. So that's positive, right?