All the windows of the house are gone, and underneath the openings where the large bays once stood, piles of shattered glass litter the floor. In the kitchen there are stained remnants of the old wainscoting. On the staircase the original wallpaper is faded and peeling. We brush it aside to ascend to the second story.
Rain has penetrated the roof in the upstairs bedroom. Moist insulation drips down from the exposed rafters. Piles of trash litter the floor. Empty bottles of window cleaner, moisture-bleached photographs, a random toy pony; we step over each as we walk through the house.
Carefully, I angle down the tilted basement staircase to inspect the foundation. Though the floor sags in areas, and the supports are either rigged by piles of scrap wood or held up by ancient leaning jacks, the bones of the house look to be in surprisingly good condition.
A handful of us discuss the status of the house in the backyard as the wind cuts through our jackets and the gray drizzle dampens our hair. We all live in one historic district or another, and all have respectable resumes in home restoration. City representatives are there as well; they had acquired the property days before and invited us to the house to hopefully give them our blessing to tear it down by Christmas.
I can understand the city’s concern. The house is abandoned and unsecured, and the weather is getting colder—those two factors can lead to winter fires started for warmth that can quickly spread. In an older neighborhood like Old North Knoxville, where the houses can be a few arms’ lengths apart, the fear of fire jumping from one house to another is a real worry.
But our discussion isn’t whether the house is repairable. We’ve saved much worse. The question for us now is who we can get to do it.
Four years ago there would have been a waiting list for a house like this, when homes sold before signs were in the yard. But this isn’t then, and we need to find a buyer now. One who wants to buy, restore, and live in the home. It’s likely the only way to save it.
It’s a rare person who can see the potential of a house in disrepair, someone who can envision the lowered ceilings raised, a new bath on the second floor, and the cans, plastic bags, and fallen plaster removed. This one is a rather simple Victorian farmhouse with a large front porch and level back lot. There’s enough yard space for a parking area, a shed, a vegetable garden, and room for dogs or children to play.
This project is about breathing life into a neglected old house and creating a new home. One where you can hear the church bells from Holy Ghost to remind you of the time when you’re buried in a book rocking on the porch swing. One where you can walk from your front door to pick up a fresh spinach and feta burger for a few dollars at the Three Rivers Market blocks away. It’s a place where you can mingle with Council members who attend the annual ice cream social at the neighborhood park, or watch the DIY network film an episode up the street on Cornelia; or stroll to Magpies for cupcakes, Freezo for ice cream, or the Time Warp for a coffee.
Financing opportunities are available through the city; it has a clean title, and the city is very interested in selling. If they can locate a buyer, that is. The obstacle is finding the person who can walk through the house with a flashlight, watching their step as they avoid broken furniture, holes in the floor, and shattered mirrors, and see the opportunity that is there. (Interested parties should contact Kathy Ellis of Knoxville’s Homemaker Program at 215-2270. The final price will be dictated by a new appraisal, but the house appraised for around $12,000 a few years ago and has only deteriorated since.)
No, the project isn’t for everyone. The neighborhood isn’t for everyone. This house has sat at 223 E. Anderson for a century. The porch looks down over a cluster of Victorians, bungalows, and a quiet neighborhood street. The house could be torn down and hauled to the landfill before the dogwoods and daffodils bloom again. Then the stairs from the sidewalk would abruptly stop at the top of the hill, a shadow hinting at what stood there for generations.
This house will likely be torn down. And it will likely happen soon. Unless we find the right person. m
Sean Bolen is a member of the Historic Zoning Commission and a community guest columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Got a specific community issue you’d like to address? Send your essay for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.