commentary (2007-08)

Keeping dead architects from rolling over in their graves, one house at a time

Old George Would've...

by Matt Edens

When my wife and I bought our house in Parkridge some 15 years ago, another large George Barber-designed Victorian sat two doors down from us. Wrapped in vinyl siding, largely gutted and cut up into four small apartments, the upper two accessed by a rickety wooden staircase run up the outside, it was condemned and empty. And for years, the house's absentee owner seemed content to let it sit--although he was at least kind enough to keep the grass mowed. (He owned more apartments across the street.)

Down on the corner, towards town, stood yet another big Victorian, also George Barber-designed. The house, despite its peeling paint, broken windows and general haunted-house appearance, was lived in. The owner, a perpetual grad student with grand designs of restoration, had been there going on 10 years, all but barricaded into one room, hauling water in a bucket from the one working tap to pour into the toilet tank so it would flush. The other rooms were largely stuffed with oak flooring and other salvaged materials he'd gathered for repair work that never quite got off the ground.

On the next block, toward Winona, stood three more George Barber-designed houses in various states of disrepair. All rentals, two were cut up into one-room rent by the week apartments, home to prostitutes and the source of several neighboring break-ins. The other house had tenants who scrounged for scrap, ostensibly for sale but mostly, it seemed, so it could sit piled up in the yard. All three were eventually condemned and vacated, more or less; it wasn't unheard of for each of the three to harbor squatters and other, more illegal activity.

Such scenarios are, luckily, becoming less common in Knoxville's historic inner-city neighborhoods. But they're hardly unique. Every neighborhood has its deadbeat landlords. And the old house nut who talks a good game while letting his old house fall apart around him is likewise a stock character of inner city living. Each is an endless frustration for neighboring homeowners, the focus of repeated phone calls to codes and, occasionally, a frantic dial to 911.

Then there's the occasional hassle about your homeowner's insurance or sleepless night spent wondering if, when it comes time to sell your place, you'll ever be able to recoup what you've sunk into it.

Demolition, of course, could have been an option for any of these empty, condemned houses. But luckily, that didn't happen, and each of these homes, restored, helped make my own historic property that much more valuable.

First the perpetual grad-student came to his senses and sold out. (I heard he'd finally gotten his degree.) The new owner, from Fourth and Gill, did a first-class restoration. Then the city, through its program for blighted properties, a form of eminent domain, acquired one of the boarded-up houses on the next block from the deadbeat landlord and sold it to another new owner, who fixed it up and resold it.

The third house, the one closest to us, had a more troubled history. The first owner sold it, but then the new owner went broke and disappeared, leaving the work on the house half done and a huge pile of construction debris out back (source of the rats that, soon after, started showing up in my backyard).

Finally, a group of neighbors and investors got together and, with the aid of the city, bought the house out of foreclosure. We renovated it as three apartments and won a couple awards for the effort. The last two houses, abandoned and empty and owing back taxes, were also acquired through the city's blighted acquisition process. Resold to Knox Heritage, they're currently under restoration.

Drive by and have a look. Like the other three houses, what were once some of the worst on the block will soon be the best. Makes me glad that, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding, these everyday battles about property rights in the inner city rarely play out on the front page of the newspaper or on AM radio.