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."

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Comments » 8

jmayshark writes:

This story is simply inaccurate in its assertion that Knox Heritage and the HFSNA have not been included. To clarify: The City administration has been working with all the concerned parties to try to reach a fair compromise to resolve a longstanding stalemate involving this property and the future of the hospital and surrounding neighborhood. Mayor Rogero and Bill Lyons, our Chief Policy Officer, met personally with representatives of Knox Heritage and had lunch with the President of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association to discuss a compromise proposal before ever presenting the proposal to representatives of the hospital. The City has continued to engage all of those parties in the ongoing discussion.

Jesse Mayshark
Communications Manager
City of Knoxville
jmayshark@cityofknoxville.org
(865) 215-3710

Jacky_Q writes:

If this plan goes through it will be incredibly sad. I was one of the last three residents to live at 1810 Highland Ave. Fort Sanders purchased the property from our landlord, Rodger Harb, and shortly thereafter our lease ended with no chance of renewal.
These properties were beautiful. Our house had such character. Most of the furnishings were still original when we left and the hospital fenced up the properties and gutted them. We still had an old claw foot bathtub, and nearly every room had a fireplace with beautiful marble mantles. Living there was like stepping into a page of history; how the better half lived a century or two ago.
After being kicked out of that house over five years ago I guess I knew its demise was inevitable, however it still would be sad to see it go.

bigorangevolman writes:

Years ago I lived for a time in a little apartment between 18th and 19th on Highland. I have many good memories of that neighborhood. The hospital was more of an annoyance then, and not yet the road-dissecting behemoth it has become now. The old Victorian houses that dot the Fort Sanders area are treasures. And yet, one by one, they are disappearing. We don't seem to have any trouble knocking down these structures that have served as homes and gathering places to multiple generations of Knoxville families, students and visitors. These houses are icons - not only of the neighborhood, but of the shared histories of the many lives that have been a part of it. I would like to think that the proud people who first installed those claw-toed tubs and marble mantles a century ago would have smiled at the thought of generations to come making their homes within those same walls. But, none of that matters. To the hospital and other commercial interests these are just worn down old relics, of course. Inconsequential piles of boards and rubbish, sitting on convenient properties. There is this thing called progress, you see. It comes with bulldozers, and watching remnants of our history and culture being lost under megatons of concrete.

cturczyn (staff) writes:

in response to jmayshark:

This story is simply inaccurate in its assertion that Knox Heritage and the HFSNA have not been included. To clarify: The City administration has been working with all the concerned parties to try to reach a fair compromise to resolve a longstanding stalemate involving this property and the future of the hospital and surrounding neighborhood. Mayor Rogero and Bill Lyons, our Chief Policy Officer, met personally with representatives of Knox Heritage and had lunch with the President of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association to discuss a compromise proposal before ever presenting the proposal to representatives of the hospital. The City has continued to engage all of those parties in the ongoing discussion.

Jesse Mayshark
Communications Manager
City of Knoxville
jmayshark@cityofknoxville.org
(865) 215-3710

For the record, in response to Mr. Mayshark's charge of inaccuracy in regard to whether KH and HFSNA have been included in the city's negotiations with the hospital, after double-checking with the principles involved, we stand by our original statement.

Knox Heritage and the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association have been occasionally briefed on the city's recent negotiations with Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center concerning the historic structures on Highland Avenue and 18th Street, and have been advised by Knoxville Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons about what was going to happen with the property.

Neither of the preservationist organizations characterize their briefings with Lyons as "negotiations."

Although Knox Heritage has previously had discussions with the hospital concerning possible uses of the property, without obvious result, neither preservationist organization was ever included in any of the city discussions with officials of the hospital that owns the property.

As of this writing, KH and HFSNA's primary concerns--that the hospital respect its 2000 agreements, that the block retain its NC-1 historic zoning, and that the three 1890s houses and one 1920s commercial building stay in place--have not been addressed in any resolution they have been apprised of so far.

Hayduke writes:

The only proper response from the city would be a copy of the NC-1 ordinance with the applicable parts underlined. The negotiations took place 13 years ago and the purchase of the buildings was made in bad faith. The "compromise" should be limited to helping sell the properties.

BayardDonahoo writes:

Is 1731 Highland Ave. one of these houses? It's on the SE corner of Highland and 18th.

Thanks.

BayardDonahoo writes:

I made a mistake. 1731 Highland is on the NE corner of Highland & 18th, not the SE corner.

Jacky_Q writes:

I would like to share one fond memory that I have from living in that house:
Directly beside 1810 Highland, Fort Sanders built that behemoth of a parking structure, (and yes.. I had to live DIRECTLY next door to the construction frenzy, they parked in our back lot, and they woke up us at the crack of dawn.. However, being the brilliant college students that we were, we made the best of the situation. (Anyone who is familiar with the property can picture the layout: right next to our backyard was a five or six story tall concrete wall.) One of the neighbors (a resident of 1801 Highland, one of the other properties being demolished) had a projector and we used to break out our lawn chairs and watch outdoor movies on that concrete wall, while cracking open a few cold ones that we had walked twenty feet away to the IGA to purchase.
Talk about an ideal way to spend a nice spring evening.

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