The Walnut Street Dilemma: Property Rights vs. Historic Preservation

St. John’s unwavering plan to demolish two 1920s buildings puts it at odds with Knoxville’s newfound instinct for historic preservation

The Walnut Street Dilemma: Property Rights vs. Historic Preservation

Photo by Coury Turczyn

Walnut Street, once a residential street of brick and stone townhouses of about the same scale as the two threatened with demolition, was once a subject of postcards. This photo, looking north from Church, does not include the two endangered buildings, but was taken a few steps from where they stand. The two buildings are rare remainders of this residential era.

Walnut Street, once a residential street of brick and stone townhouses of about the same scale as the two threatened with demolition, was once a subject of postcards. This photo, looking north from Church, does not include the two endangered buildings, but was taken a few steps from where they stand. The two buildings are rare remainders of this residential era.

On May 15, Knox Heritage announced its annual Fragile 15, their rogues’ gallery of historic buildings threatened by neglect or possible demolition. Their stated intent is to raise awareness of the importance of what remains of our older architecture, and prod owners to do something positive. Most property owners aren’t happy about the listing, but sometimes it works.

After the announcement, the preservationist nonprofit fielded a question from a puzzled reporter about one omission: the 1920s brick buildings at 710 and 712 Walnut Street. In late 2011, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral had expressed its intent to demolish them. It would mark the second and third demolitions of intact pre-war buildings downtown in this century.

KH Executive Director Kim Trent explained to Metro Pulse that she and her board didn’t include the St. John’s buildings on their unenvied list because Knox Heritage had hope for them. Last summer, the church’s leadership had seemed open to alternative proposals. Rarely had the group been able to offer a demolition alternative that seemed so appealing: a full renovation with no expenses to the owner at all, and one that even promised future profits to the owner.

Things seemed to be looking up, Trent said. The preservationists believed that, after hundreds of hours of volunteer work, they had answered all the church’s stated concerns.

Later the same day that Knox Heritage gave the Walnut Street buildings a bye in its Fragile 15, the church—which had still never accepted or rejected either the economic or architectural aspects of Knox Heritage’s proposal—went to the Downtown Design Review Board to renew its push for demolition.

There has followed six weeks of misunderstandings, demonstrations and petitions, hearings and decisions and appeals, and of split friendships and frayed nerves. These two modest buildings seem just the flashpoint of a much larger story about power and vision for the future of Knoxville—and the question of whether some institutions are too powerful and important to be judged by ordinary standards.

***

The smallish old brick buildings across from the side of Lawson McGhee Library are not famous landmarks. In recent years, they’ve shown little obvious life. The shorter one most recently bore a simple sign marked Interdenominational Bible Institute, a modest African-American pastor-training organization. St. John’s had been allowing the IBI to use the building as their headquarters, but the organization vacated the building in 2011. (The IBI’s website still lists 712 Walnut as their headquarters, but the phone number listed doesn’t work.)

After IBI left, in late September, 2011, St. John’s applied for a demolition permit for both buildings, explaining to the Downtown Design Review Board that it could not afford to maintain them and feared their vacancy would attract vagrants.

The rector of St. John’s is known as a dean, the cleric of a cathedral. In October, 2011, Dean John Ross first came before the Downtown Design Review Board, pleading that the buildings needed to be torn down primarily because they were in poor condition and a financial burden on the church. “It’s money we just really don’t have,” Ross stated.

He said the church had no need to expand its parking and had no need for the buildings. He also made it clear St. John’s would never sell them. The church would build something in the future. Without offering a timetable, he said, “it won’t be 30 years” before some new construction took the place of the buildings. In the meantime, he said, it would be a fenced green space.

The proposal drew sharp criticism from the board. John Craig, a downtown developer behind several projects on Gay Street and Market Square (and father of the popular International Biscuit Festival), responded, “This is a textbook case of demolition by neglect: when you have a property that has been allowed to deteriorate, and then that deterioration is used as the rationale for tearing the building down.”

The board criticized the church both for not taking care of the buildings and for wanting to tear them down. It wasn’t a customary role for St. John’s. The church includes several of Knoxville’s most generous philanthropists, who are much more accustomed to gratitude and accommodation.

The church was told to come back with some better plans. The rejection startled and angered the church’s leadership. If St. John’s had demolished the buildings 10 years ago, they would not have been required to go through this review. If they’d demolished the buildings 20 years ago, it might not even have made the news. In the 20th century, property owners demolished old downtown buildings all the time, especially for parking lots. Most didn’t even rate an article in the daily.

But things have changed downtown. The Downtown Design Review Board, a legacy of the Nine Counties One Vision project, was launched during the mayoral administration of a former St. John’s parishioner, Bill Haslam, one of those credited with downtown’s preservation-fueled revival.

Likewise, the church’s proposal for demolition came as a shock to the downtown community. Downtown Knoxville is very, very small. Downtown people know their buildings like Vol fans know their football players, their performance and potential.

Though the buildings are unimpressive to some, they’re the first historic buildings anyone has tried to tear down since Home Federal’s demolition of the five-story 1904 Sprankle Building on Union Avenue in early 2005, after years of controversy. That subject still gets blood boiling. Some downtown supporters cite it as the one reason they will not deal with Home Federal. When asked why they’re concerned about the St. John’s issue, some point to the bank’s “parking crater” at Walnut and Union, in the place where the bank once promised a new building.

Meanwhile, downtown’s revival—over 90 percent of its new businesses, over 90 percent of its new residences—has taken place in old buildings: specifically in old buildings of a particular era, 1870-1930. That national phenomenon has prompted several theories about why old brick buildings are so appealing to developers and to customers. Knoxville’s supply is strictly finite. Even before this controversy, developers had been expressing anxiety about what will happen after they’re all used up. Since 2000, about 120 historic downtown buildings of various sizes have been renovated and occupied. In the central business district, the supply of vacant unrenovated pre-war buildings is now in the single digits. Most of those, like the remaining McClung Warehouses, are subjects of dispute.

Visiting urban-design professionals have viewed the blossoming of downtown Knoxville and assumed there was a comprehensive plan behind it. Though there’s been occasional nudging from local government, Knoxville’s been a remarkable exception to the urban-plan model, seeming proof that, given good examples and some community spirit, property owners will do the right thing. The Walnut Street issue may be an isolated hiccup, or it can suggest a discouraging end to an optimistic era.

***

From 2011, St. John’s only publicly released drawings show an interim plan, a pedestrian green space between the cathedral and the Walnut Building. However, as announced for the first time in May,  the wide space is seen eventually as a second driveway to the church’s private parking lot. According to fundraising projections, this pedestrian green-space era may last less than five years.

From 2011, St. John’s only publicly released drawings show an interim plan, a pedestrian green space between the cathedral and the Walnut Building. However, as announced for the first time in May, the wide space is seen eventually as a second driveway to the church’s private parking lot. According to fundraising projections, this pedestrian green-space era may last less than five years.

Hearing of St. John’s need for a porte-cochere, Knox Heritage offered architectural renderings of the rear of St. John’s, which the church intends to remake as its main entrance. KH is attempting to accommodate the church’s stated needs in a way that allows the Walnut Street buildings to remain.

Hearing of St. John’s need for a porte-cochere, Knox Heritage offered architectural renderings of the rear of St. John’s, which the church intends to remake as its main entrance. KH is attempting to accommodate the church’s stated needs in a way that allows the Walnut Street buildings to remain.

Developer David Dewhirst, an active member of Knox Heritage, was one of the busiest men in Knoxville last year. He was renovating the Arnstein Building and a complex of residences at Jackson and Central, while getting started on the mammoth White Lily building, and other projects. But, with apparent cooperation from the church, he made time to tailor a deal to St. John’s stated needs.

Dewhirst, the maverick aerospace engineer-turned-preservationist developer, lately in partnership with architect Mark Heinz, has renovated dozens of downtown buildings, from the Holston to the Emporium to the JFG building. His firm has rendered several hundred new residences downtown. Among them is a project very near the Walnut Street buildings, the Cherokee Building, a vacant building Dewhirst bought from St. John’s. It’s now an upscale apartment building.

Dewhirst presented the church with an unusual proposal, based on the church’s statements that they didn’t have immediate plans for the property and desired to stop losing money on the buildings. Churches aren’t taxed, but contrary to some assumptions, churches do have to pay taxes on buildings they’re not actively using for worship, and in recent years the church has paid more than $1,000 a year in taxes on the Walnut Street properties. By Dewhirst’s plan, the church would retain ownership of the buildings, but Dewhirst would assume all the buildings’ liabilities, maintenance, taxes, and insurance, and fix them up as residences. After a four-year period during which Dewhirst would recover his own expenses, the buildings would begin generating thousands of dollars a year for the church.

KH often offers property owners money-saving incentives through tax credits, loans, and sometimes limited grants; rarely are they able to offer a building-fixing plan with a guaranteed profit. Dewhirst was able to promise St. John’s $108,000, over an 18-year period, just for the use of two vacant buildings.

He submitted his proposal, via e-mail, on June 29 of last year.

The terms were simple: “Dewhirst Properties would lease the property effective immediately for a term of 18 years. We will assume all of St. John’s property expenses,” including taxes, insurance, and repairs. “We will fully renovate the buildings into two single-family residences with our capital (estimated renovation cost is $265,000). We will manage, lease and maintain the property throughout the term. We will compensate St. John’s with the following schedule of payments:

- Years 1-4: no cost

- Years 5-9: $4,000 per year

- Years 10-14: $8,000 per year

- Years 15-18: $12,000 per year.”

Then, he said, St. John’s could tear them down, without liability. But Dewhirst admits he intended to persuade. He characterizes his point of view: “We think you’ll look back and say, ‘I can’t believe we ever thought about tearing those buildings down.’”

He adds, “Members of the church, perhaps elderly members, would love a situation like this. Urban residences next to your church is a very positive thing.”

Six weeks later, Dewhirst and Heinz went to the church and met with the cathedral’s leadership council, known as the Chapter. “It was a large group, at least a dozen people,” Dewhirst says. “We met for 45 minutes or an hour.” Dewhirst recalls most of the Chapter seemed excited about the proposal. Two or three were skeptical, he says, but he thought a solid majority favored it. “It was a very convivial atmosphere.”

Dewhirst heard nothing for the rest of the year. Into the new year, he grew concerned. On April 9, eight months after he’d last heard from St. John’s concerning his proposal, he sent Ross a friendly note:

“After our meeting several months ago, Mark and I had never heard back anything regarding our proposal,” Dewhirst wrote. “Assuming that a decision or determination hasn’t been finalized to date, I wanted you to know that we remain willing to find a way to work together. We are not locked into the specific provisions we presented that day, and remain hopeful that something can be worked out. Please let us know if you wish to continue to seek out that arrangement.”

By this time, Metro Pulse had heard rumors about the offer. Knox Heritage requested we not publicize it before St. John’s responded to it.

Meanwhile, to address not just the buildings’ survival but also St. John’s disability-access issues, Knox Heritage enlisted architectural draftsmen to volunteer their work to offer a plausible solution, with schematic drawings and images. Knox Heritage staffers say they left multiple messages with Ross, trying to set up a meeting concerning that aspect of the offer. They say their calls were never returned.

Dewhirst was getting the cold shoulder, too. “I didn’t hear a damn thing,” he says.

As of this writing, Dewhirst, who left an apparently happy Chapter last August, has still not heard directly from the church.

***

Most churches are messy organizations, often benignly. Except for full-time clergy, who answer to the congregation, church leadership is a voluntary project by lay committees composed of an ever-changing array of people who may or may not be free to attend any given meeting. Arthur Seymour, a parishioner and the church’s longtime attorney, was at the initial meeting with Dewhirst and Heinz, but not at subsequent meetings during which the church discussed the issue. Sharon Miller Pryse, president of The Trust Company and the church’s longtime treasurer, did not attend the meeting at which Dewhirst made his proposal, but she did attend later meetings that discussed it.

Dean John Ross was the main representative of the church in 2011, but has not attended recent public meetings concerning the issue. Disinclined to return calls from either preservationists or reporters, he seems to have retired from the field, at least in regard to the fate of the Walnut Street buildings. MPC staffers say that in getting requests for delays over that long period, they dealt mainly with a church secretary, not with Ross, who remains dean of the cathedral.

Today, several of the church’s lay leadership say they were unaware Ross had never returned calls to Trent and Dewhirst, and say they can’t account for it.

Meanwhile, in the Downtown Design Review Board, the issue was repeatedly delayed, with St. John’s okay. “At the April meeting, the board instructed staff to request that someone from the church be present to ask, in person, to postpone and give us an update on the progress of discussion with Dewhirst and Knox Heritage,” says board chair Kimberly Henry. “The board—or at least me—was under the impression that some negotiations were taking place.”

In fact, unbeknownst to her and apparently also to some in St. John’s leadership, there weren’t any ongoing talks that had involved the developer making the proposals.

After her inability to reach Ross, Trent met with the church’s highest-ranking lay leader, Ann Haslam Bailey, on May 8, enjoying what she describes as a cordial and “positive” lunch. Trent presented Bailey with a CD of architectural renderings that purported to answer the church’s need for improvement to the rear of the church, and Bailey said she’d show them to the Chapter.

Seven days after that meeting, on May 15, Seymour was standing before the Downtown Design Review Board, pushing for demolition.

Trent, Dewhirst, and Heinz have reason to doubt that the church’s leadership has a clear idea of what they’re offering. Dewhirst has never met with treasurer Pryse about his plan. But at the June 13 MPC meeting, Pryse was the authority on why the church was rejecting it: “It ties up the property,” she said.

In a subsequent interview, Pryse says her understanding was that the 18-year period would start only after a two-year delay. Dewhirst’s June 29, 2012, letter includes the adverb “immediately.” Heinz affirmed this week that they can still start on the project right away.

Dewhirst also says the church could get out of the contract at any time, just by paying the balance on the unrecovered part of their rehab, which would decrease as time passed, and eventually would be covered by what the church has already made. (Incidentally, the buildings’ prospects are so obvious that at least one other developer has approached Knox Heritage in hopes of partnering with St. John’s.)

Dewhirst’s April 7 letter offers consideration of other time frames.

“I know David, and like him,” Pryse says. “But if David could have amortized the cost for a shorter time, he would have shown that to us” at the first meeting, she says.

***

Dewhirst got a personal hint about alleged misconceptions of him when a certain St. John’s opinion leader—a well-known octogenarian millionaire he’d somehow never met in person—confronted Dewhirst at a reception. The man made a beeline toward Dewhirst and, without making time for introductions, shouted, “We ought to be able to tear those buildings down if we want to!”

Dewhirst says the elderly parishioner, especially influential but not one of those who attended his proposal meeting months earlier, seemed to assume that Dewhirst was personally trying to restrict the church’s property rights. Taken aback, Dewhirst tried to explain that he was trying to offer an attractive and profitable option. He found the man did not want to discuss the issue.

“It was just, ‘By God, I want those buildings torn down!’” he says.

Several of the backers of the St. John’s demolitions had memories of 2002, when Mayor Victor Ashe, trying out an aggressive new tactic, imposed an involuntary historic protection on the J. Allen Smith house, a 1915 suburban landmark owned by Cherokee Country Club that the club wanted to demolish for a parking lot and other amenities. Cherokee challenged the gesture, which though approved by City Council and the Metropolitan Planning Commission, was finally overturned by the state supreme court. The house was demolished.

That was 11 years and three mayors ago—no one in Knoxville has attempted the involuntary H-1 tactic since then. Though victorious, country-club supporters, some of them St. John’s parishioners, still resent the initiative, and are reportedly convinced the only way to prevent it is to tear buildings down before it happens. Knox Heritage has all but forsworn the tactic and has unilaterally promised not to seek that remedy on Walnut Street. One KH board member has described it as throwing gasoline on a fire.

Mayor Madeline Rogero, who has a graduate degree in urban planning, offers this statement: “I am always hopeful that property owners will find a way to make use of historic structures rather than demolishing them, especially if no replacement structures are contemplated for the near future. We have several excellent examples of buildings that were slated for demolition and instead have become valuable assets to our vibrant downtown. With that said, there is a process in place for review, and I respect that process.”

Misperceptions seem to have played a role in inflaming opinion on both sides.

The popular impression that the church wants to remove the buildings for more surface parking—ignoring free all-day parking on Sundays at the 640-space Locust Street Garage, two blocks away—isn’t true, either, though it might seem a natural conclusion, based on the remarks of some MPC commissioners who last week spoke in favor of St. John’s plan by emphasizing the church’s need for parking. (Also, a parishioner told WVLT on Sunday that one reason for the demolitions was that “We don’t have nearly enough parking.”) Most churches do have more dedicated parking.

But actual St. John’s leaders say it’s not about parking at all. They need to remove the buildings in a long-term plan to reorient the church’s front toward its parking lot—with a porte cochere as a drop-off for the disabled and elderly. “It’s all about access,” Pryse says. She says the church’s still-developing master plan, of which removing the buildings is just a part, will actually result in fewer parking spaces in their surface lot.

“This is not a parking issue,” Seymour says. “Those buildings would yield two or three parking spaces, if that’s all they were used for.” And he says parishioners aren’t afraid of a little walk. Some parallel park on Main, he says, adding that on Sundays he walks three blocks from his regular office space.

***

In his late 60s, tall, jocular Arthur Seymour is a collection of contrasts. Those who see him only in court, and before various government bodies, take him to be developers’ anti-preservationist property-rights hit man. But Seymour, who shows a preference for old-fashioned suits and hats, is a constant reader of history. Prominent in his Main Street office is an interesting 1920s photograph of the 1886 Knox County Courthouse. He’s a former president of the East Tennessee Historical Society. Back in 1974, he co-founded the preservationist group that became known as Knox Heritage, formed to counter a property owner’s intention to tear down the Bijou Theatre.

Now he represents his church’s interests pro-bono. He offers a long history of his church and its emerging needs. For decades, it sat on its corner of Walnut and Cumberland. Parishioners tended to park on Cumberland, or in parking lots on Cumberland, and walk in the traditional front of the building.

They also watched some ecclesiastical neighbors leave. Seymour notes that Second Presbyterian, once St. John’s neighbor, moved to Kingston Pike, 60 years ago, and now enjoys about 20 times as much property as St. John’s has.

Until 1985, St. John’s was strictly a church, not a cathedral. The church’s congregation is about the same size it was 50 years ago, but its building was small compared to other churches, in square footage. In 1983, the church tripled its footprint, demolished some early 20th century row houses on Market, and—in one of the 1980s’ biggest preservationist controversies—downtown’s last antebellum house to be removed. (Known as the Humes House, it was disassembled and numbered for reassembly elsewhere, but after the deaths of some of the leaders of that effort, it never happened. For years the house was thought to be lost, but Knox Heritage recently discovered the house’s woodwork, forgotten in a suburban warehouse, and have stored it in their own quarters.) Seymour represented the church even then.

In 1984-5, St. John’s became the birthplace and headquarters of the newly formed Diocese of East Tennessee, which ostensibly covers 38 counties in this state, plus three more in North Georgia. St. John’s expansion along Cumberland accommodated the new Diocesan Center, which included the headquarters of the East Tennessee bishop and his staff, a library, and a street-front gift shop. The church itself got a playground and a tile “labyrinth,” ostensibly open to the public regardless of faith; it adorned a spacious plaza further decorated with awnings in a sort of village motif. It became, architecturally at least, Knoxville’s most permeable and pedestrian-inviting church, and hosted many public events, from the annual flower festival to some elaborate plays and concerts.

But around 1990, when Whittle Communications built the two-block building that eventually became the federal courthouse, most of St. John’s traditional parking evaporated. Hemmed in, St. John’s commenced a policy of buying adjacent property as it became available.

One was the old marble-faced Mann’s Mortuary building on Church Avenue, which St. John’s eventually demolished for a 60-space parking lot. Despite the pedestrian appeal of the new Cumberland-side architecture, parishioners began favoring the backside, where their cars were. But even the new construction wasn’t designed to be seen from the back.

St. John’s complex served as the Diocesan Center for about 15 years. In 2003, the Diocesan Center moved west, to a suburban location off Lovell Road, near the Episcopal School of Knoxville. Seymour calls it a “mutual decision. We needed the space for education,” that is, Sunday school and some Wednesday-evening gatherings.

Several years ago, realizing it had overextended, St. John’s sold a few of its properties. Dewhirst bought the Cherokee, and with Heinz he redeveloped it into a popular upscale office-residential building.

The buildings at 710 and 712 Walnut were bought by St. John’s in 2006 and 1999, respectively. According to KGIS, the church paid a premium for them, about twice their current market value.

Photo with no caption

Photo by Coury Turczyn

The taller building, 710 Walnut, has a peculiar sales history. According to the property assessor’s office, accessed through KGIS, a group called Church Properties LLC, with a Papermill Road address, bought it from Mary Hickman in 2003 for $270,000. Three years later, Church Properties sold it to St. John’s for $459,089.

Seymour says Church Properties was an ad-hoc group, including himself, that was buying property on behalf of the church when the church didn’t have the money for it. Kerry Sprouse, the Turkey Creek developer, was involved.

Seymour doesn’t remember enough of the details to explain the $189,000 difference, and wonders if one of those figures may include additional properties.

“I can assure you we made no money off of them,” he says. “I know I didn’t.”

***

About Dewhirst’s proposal, Seymour says, “there were meetings and meetings and meetings,” after which the church just decided not to do it. Seymour didn’t attend most of them, himself, and seems surprised to hear there were no meetings with Dewhirst or Knox Heritage after the initial one that he attended last August. He says he doesn’t know why Dean Ross didn’t return messages.

Asked what preservationists did wrong, from his perspective, Seymour says, “I think Kim Trent should pick her battles,” mentioning the fact that Knox Heritage is trying to raise money for Westwood, the expensive marvel of Victorian architecture Knox Heritage is trying to rehab, with the help of some St. John’s parishioners.

The executive director of Knox Heritage has been the lightning rod for a lot of Episcopal ire, but Trent, who often opposes demolitions, says she’s serving the wishes of the board of her organization of over 1,000 dues-paying members.

She appeared before the MPC two weeks ago supporting the Downtown Design Review Board’s rejection of St. John’s plan, asserting that the buildings are similar to many of the buildings recently revived on Market Square and the 100 block of Gay Street. She compared KH’s proposal for Walnut Street to their efforts on the once-doomed 500 block of Gay, a deal between KH, the city, and landowners and developers.

“In the end,” Trent said, “these two buildings may or may not be saved, but the demolition of historic structures in downtown must become a priority in our conversation about creating a great city,” she said. “That is a critical conversation we need to have, and it needs to start now.”

It was a frustrating meeting for the preservationists. MPC’s unanimous vote to support St. John’s plan wasn’t unexpected, given the staff recommendation. But a few commissioners made comments suggesting they were unfamiliar with downtown Knoxville in 2013. One spoke of a need for more surface parking downtown; just before the vote, another referred to demolition as the surest cure for vacancy and blight.

As the audience left, Trent spotted some St. John’s parishioners who wore stickers printed, “I Support St. John’s.”

“Good,” Trent said. “So do I.”

This week, the KH board is reportedly considering whether to take the issue further, to City Council. A majority of City Council is believed to be sympathetic to saving the buildings—but loath to cross St. John’s.

The KH board has agreed not speak with the press before they make an announcement, but Trent offers this statement: “Most disappointing to us is that demolition isn’t necessary to meet the church’s needs. We hope the church will have a change of heart, and we’d love to work on alternatives to demolition.”

Though Trent has been the only spokesperson for the buildings (the MPC meeting allows pleas of only five minutes), Knox Heritage does not comprise all the opposition to St. John’s demolition plans, and maybe not even most of it. For what it’s worth, an online petition drive to save the buildings was organized by Andrea Monk, a young downtown resident and board member of the 100 Block Association. She’s not a member of Knox Heritage. Since June 13 the petition has gained almost 500 signatures, many of them with specific comments about the buildings, and most of them not the usual preservationist cadre.

The MPC’s staff recommendation to approve the demolitions reflected the reality of the city’s limited codes concerning preservation but doesn’t imply staffers agree with St. John’s plan. Mike Reynolds, who read the MPC’s recommendation approving St. John’s plan with a poker face, makes it clear in an interview later that an MPC “recommendation” doesn’t imply that staffers like any given idea. They’re just saying they don’t know of any regulations forbidding it. “Planners, we like to keep these resources around,” Reynolds says of the Walnut Street buildings, which might offer future uses yet to be contemplated.

For urban-design credentials, no one tops Prof. Mark Schimmenti, who has led major projects from post-Katrina New Orleans to Hudson-waterfront New York. The one-time winner of the Rome Prize was the founding design director of the Nashville Design Center. In the 1990s, he was thickly involved in assessing early proposals for downtown Knoxville, especially Market Square, where he manned a University of Tennessee design studio. Lately he’s been conducting forums about various downtown problems.

Often out of town, Schimmenti has never joined Knox Heritage or advised them on this issue. But he attended the 2011 meetings concerning the demolition proposal and has been dismayed to hear about what he thinks is a mistake, for the city and for the church. “I just don’t get it,” he says of the demolition plan. “That’s old-school.” About the stated need to remove the buildings for better access to an inclement-weather drop-off, he laughs aloud: “We have to tear these buildings down—because it’s gonna rain!”

Kathy Kottaridis is the executive director of Historic Boston. She’s a national authority on preservation who happened to be here last month for a national real-estate symposium and got interested in the Walnut Street issue. “That church is a lovely building,” she says. “It deserves to have good buildings around it. These aren’t high style architecture, but they are perfectly stable buildings, and they’re part of the look and feel of Knoxville and establish a broader sense of place.

“On the surface, it looks like short-sighted planning,” she says. “It seems a shame. ... In real estate, we talk about the highest and best use. Take those buildings out and replace them with, what—good access for cars? That seems a lower use that doesn’t offer real value to the church.”

John Sanders is a preservationist architect who has been involved in several major rehabs, including the S&W and Southeastern Glass, now both fully occupied buildings. Technically a rival of Dewhirst’s, Sanders supports Dewhirst’s plan for the buildings. He brings up a concern unvoiced by others, that without these two buildings, the much-larger Walnut Building, the office building on the corner, will look stark and arrogantly placed.

“They could be lovely homes,” he says, adding what several others have said, that much of what has happened downtown in the last 15 years started with worse buildings than these. “It’s our responsibility to not let this kind of stuff happen,” he says. “It’s not just their right, it’s our right as a downtown to have a city that’s cohesive.”

Even Dewhirst is not necessarily a knee-jerk building-hugger. “People ought to be able to tear down old buildings, even historic buildings, as long as they replace them with something better,” he says. “But this is gonna be a driveway. To a parking area.”

Sharon Pryse adds, “We haven’t had much of an uproar inside the congregation.” But she confirms several other parishioners’ impression that Dewhirst’s proposal has never been discussed with the congregation.

At least some St. John’s parishioners would like to save the buildings. One longtime member, who asked that we not use his or her name, says that the church’s decision-makers tend to be older folks who honestly don’t realize what they’re losing: “They don’t have their ears very close to the ground and haven’t seen the momentum downtown.”

MPC staffer Reynolds affirms the church will have to come before the Downtown Design Review Board at least once again, to get approval of their construction project itself. One issue is that the driveway project will likely remove public parallel parking near the library. That has not been discussed at any of these meetings, and could be turned down, too, whether the historic buildings are still there or not.

***

It was a coincidence that during the recent storm, the two-story Ely Building, one of the buildings closest to the church, sold for $725,000. It’s 20 years older than the Walnut Street buildings, albeit about 20 percent bigger, and renovated. It’ll be mixed-use office-residential.

We asked Dewhirst, Sanders, and others what they’d expect to pay for the Walnut Street buildings, which total about 5,000 square feet in floor space. They came up with about the same figure: as they are, unrenovated, they’d go for $300-400,000. Surprisingly, that’s much less than what the church paid for them in 1999 and 2006: $175,000 and $459,089, a total of $634,000.

Without the buildings, that 2,000-square-foot patch of downtown real estate might be worth $40-75,000.

Considering the church has made it clear it has no intention of selling the property, losing hundreds of thousands in real-estate value may not be relevant.

***

“It’s not how we see us using it,” Pryse says of Dewhirst’s proposal for their property. Chapter member Al Bedinger, an engineer who has done renovation work on the Bijou and other historic buildings, and is currently working with Knox Heritage on the Westwood project, says, “We’re not in the real-estate business. That’s not our mission.”

He and several St. John’s supporters note that the church could have moved to the suburbs, as several old downtown churches did. Bedinger adds, “We just want to make it easier for people to get around.” When we spoke to him last week, he said he hadn’t seen Knox Heritage’s alternate plan for ingress and drop-off.

Pryse isn’t certain about a time frame for the new construction of the covered portico that will be the church’s new front door. But she says, “I would certainly like to see this happen in the next five years.”

The site of the threatened buildings doesn’t infringe on the site of the planned portico, but Pryse says removing them would ease ingress. About the present short alleyway, she says, “You can get a car in there, but you can’t really drive a car in there. You can’t drive through there and drop somebody off.”

We may have to take her word for that. On a drawing that includes the present alley, she traces the routes by which people would enter but doesn’t make it clear to a reporter why the buildings can’t stay.

At the MPC meeting, Seymour said the alley wouldn’t be an adequate second entrance to the parking lot because scraping rear-view mirrors would be a hazard. The alleyway between the church and the Walnut Street buildings is 13 feet wide—wider than the traffic lane of public Walnut Street that leads to it. On interstate highways, a minimum lane width is 12 feet. The alley’s currently constricted, perhaps prudently, by building-protecting iron posts, which narrow the passage to about 11 feet, but that’s not especially narrow for a traffic lane. Some downtown streets’ lanes are less than 9 feet wide. The church building is recessed from the street and would seem to leave room for the turning radius of even a large vehicle.

Dropping off the elderly in inclement weather is not a new problem. History offers a third option. A photo shows that, a century ago, St. John’s had a porte cochere right on Walnut Street—in fact, right where the alley is.

“It’s not about logic anymore,” says one insider, who, like several others, prefers we not use names.

Schimmenti has gathered that the church’s point of view is, “I own the damn things, I can tear them down, I can do what I want to do, it doesn’t matter if it makes any sense at all.”

The last 12 months has left Dewhirst with an impression several others have arrived at independently—that certain powerful factions in the church—not necessarily the dean, or the Chapter he met with once, or the church’s attorney—want to demolish the buildings just to put preservationists in their place and make a memorable statement about property rights.

“There may be people that would make that statement,” admits Seymour, “but I don’t think that’s the focus of the church at all.”

“I am a property-rights person,” Pryse says. “But it’s not about ‘We’re gonna do this just because we can do this,’ at all. That’s not the tenor of our congregation, or our religion. I can’t say ‘no one,’ but the attitude of our clergy and leadership is much more conciliatory.”

“Trying to push something through quietly always brings out the worst in people,” says Kottaridis. Historic buildings still get torn down in Boston, she admits, but only after a 90-day period of public debate, during which the public gets to hear all the best arguments pro and con.

To preservationists, the approval of MPC was a clarion call to revamp Knoxville’s fairly lax codes. Some cities have banned demolitions outright specifically when the only planned result is surface parking—but it seems to be an emergency measure for already half-erased cities like Tulsa, which has lost most of its old downtown to surface parking.

Kaye Graybeal, a city planner formerly of Wilmington, N.C., recently replaced retiring Ann Bennett as MPC’s historic-preservation planner. She acknowledges that the buildings aren’t “elaborate” enough to wow people. “But these buildings are part of a streetscape that exemplifies a period in history. What will we replace them with?” She doesn’t like what she’s seen so far. “There are huge missing teeth and gaps in our urban fabric, and this only enlargens it.”

It’s remarkable how much dental imagery comes up on both sides, concerning these buildings that once housed dentists’ offices.

“After all this pain, I’d rather just get it over with,” says Pryse. “Like pulling a tooth.”

© 2013 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 4

KnoxvilleUrbanGuy writes:

Please sign the petition to let St. John's know that you do not support this demolition: http://www.change.org/petitions/st-jo...

theGreatOz writes:

I am anxious to see how each City Council member votes. Most of them play it safe around powerful, rich people, like some of the St. John's members certainly are, but I expect a few of them will have to oppose demolition because of their longtime support for historic preservation. The outcome of the building will be a bellweather for Knoxville's future.

3RunHomer writes:

It seems clear that what St Johns really wants is to move out to the suburbs where their members live, but tradition and inertia keep them from pulling the trigger. Maybe some developer will offer to swap them a big chunk of land in the burbs for their property downtown.

seeingstars writes:

It must be nice to be a million/billionaire and have a city bend to your every whim and want. All the while cheating hard working people that you think are loyal customers.

It's ridiculous that Ann Haslam Bailey was the highest ranking person to meet with Trent. That's like handing Alabama Tennessee's game playbook. No wonder Kim Trent didn't want to talk about this, because it boils down to the richest family in Knoxville getting their way, once again.

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