Fort Sanders Hospital Deal Means to Tear Down Some More Victorian Houses

There's been no announcement, but I'm learning from multiple sources that Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center is seeking to demolish four historic structures near the intersection of 18th Street and Highland Avenue. The hospital bought these four old buildings five years ago, knowing they were part of a limited NC-1 "Neighborhood Conservation" historic zone the hospital had agreed to in 2000. In intensive months of talks with the city and the neighborhood, 13 years ago, FSRMC agreed to respect certain expansion boundaries.

Only the most historic buildings in the neighborhood, including these, were included in the don't-tear-down zone. Surrounding the hospital are whole acres of surface parking and less-interesting structures.

There's been some quiet negotiation between the city administration and the hospital—but notably not including Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association or Knox Heritage, who were both parties to the 2000 agreement.

Maybe there's some misunderstanding, and I'll save the criticism for later. For now, it seems important just to let folks know what we're dealing with here.

The three threatened wood-frame houses on Highland were all built in the 1890s. I haven't done a complete rundown, but here are some highlights, based on just a couple of hours at the library.

It's not yet proven, but some believe the one at 1810 Highland to be a George Barber house. The most famous architect who ever lived in Knoxville, Barber created Victorian house designs still cherished as far away as the West Coast. The greatest concentration of them is in Knoxville, but there aren't many of them left in Fort Sanders.

Originally it was the home of surgeon Dr. Henry Patton Coile and soon his son, Samuel A. Coile, the first pastor of Fort Sanders Presbyterian Church, the building now known as the Laurel Theater. Coile left that job, and this house, to become the president of Tusculum College in Greeneville, later to earn some attention in Presbyterian circles nationally. The house stayed Presbyterian for a while.

By 1902, it was the home of Indiana-born Presbyterian scholar the Rev. Jeremiah B. Work, who was then dean of Knoxville College, where he taught psychology and pedagogy. Work was later a professor at Tarkio College in northwestern Missouri, an expert on Calvinism who published essays and booklets. He's credited as an early influence on theologian and author Lorain Boettner. His 1810 Highland address is mentioned in some national United Presbyterian Church documents.

The Rev. Isaac Van de Water, a Methodist pastor well known in his native New York, was about 66 and semi-retired when he built the smaller cottage in the middle around 1895. He lived there with his wife, Jennie. Their son, Charles F. Van de Water, was later elected to Congress in California, but he was killed in an automobile accident before he could serve.

The oldest one is on the corner, an 1891 house that was first home to Ranson D. Whittle (1852-1932), of the Whittle Springs family, who was apparently living here at 1802 Highland when he founded the successful Whittle Trunk & Bag Co., one leader of the city's late-19th-century manufacturing boom. Today, Whittle trunks are prized by antiques collectors.

R.D. Whittle and his wife had eight kids, likely one reason they moved a few years later.

In partnership with others, William T. Roberts was already a well-known neighborhood grocer in 1914 when he moved into this corner house, and he lived there for 35 years. In 1923, he built his own grocery, a two-story brick building next door to his house. Known for its first several decades as Roberts' Grocery, it remained open for 87 years.

That urban-style store building, exactly the sort of building the city's trying to promote over on Cumberland Avenue, is one of only a couple of old commercial buildings in Fort Sanders, reminders of the days when people walked from their houses to get an onion or a sack of coffee or a quart of milk. Upstairs were a couple of apartments.

Thousands of us remember it as "the 18th Street IGA," a general store for the western half of Fort Sanders, the destination of late-night walks for some little thing. Where do neighbors go when they want to get another six-pack? Now, I guess, they get in a car. It's the American Way. The folks in the ER know how that works.

I've been at that hospital many times, waiting for some news or another test, and found it a blessed relief to walk around the corner and pick up a Coke or a sandwich for a family member or for myself. When you're under stress, there's nothing better. To me, that store was an amenity absent from all suburban hospitals, this little access to the normal world. I could feel my blood pressure going down.

It was still open until about three years ago, when the hospital/landlord declined to repair some damage after a small electrical fire, and forced the business to close.

Meanwhile, the hospital evicted the several residents of the three houses on Highland, and boarded up the windows.

Even if the buildings vanish, there's another shoe to fall. The soil beneath these houses is hallowed.

This is the western edge of what were the ramparts of Fort Sanders. That is, the actual Union fort for which the hospital is named. It was East Tennessee's largest and most formidable fort, the one Gen. James Longstreet's men charged one cold, desperate morning, 150 years ago this month. The hottest part of the biggest battle ever fought in East Tennessee was right here.

There's no plot of land more intimately associated with the actual fighting. It almost certainly holds Civil War artifacts, and evidence of hard-packed clay that would settle some sharp arguments about the battlements.

It's not a place that should be excavated for another parking garage without months of archaeology. I know some Civil War scholars, and you don't want to tangle with them.

It would be better to save the houses. Never before have houses been destroyed in a historic NC-1 zone. It raises the question of whether historic zoning has actual meaning.

Addendum:

Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center bought the three houses on Highland and the commercial building on 18th Street five years ago and boarded them up, drawing criticism from preservationist group Knox Heritage, which has placed the structures on their Fragile 15 every year since 2011. All the structures have deteriorated visibly during the period the hospital has owned them.

However, city spokesman Jesse Fox Mayshark says this yet-unannounced proposal to remove the houses is coming at the initiative of the City of Knoxville, not the hospital. We added the word "Deal" to the headline to reflect that.

He also says that the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association and Knox Heritage have indeed been included in some talks concerning the project, albeit none involving the hospital, which owns the property.

Corrected: NC-1 stands for "Neighborhood Conservation" district, not "neighborhood commercial."