citybeat (2008-05)

Collegiate Heritage Deferred

City Beat

Is UT finally getting serious about historic preservation?

On Monday evening, about 30 citizens showed up for a meeting in a room in a building slated for demolition to talk about historic preservation at the University of Tennessee. It might have seemed a disappointing turnout at the University Centerâ’s capacious Shiloh Room, but as organizer Tim Ezzell acknowledged, the long-planned meeting was up against some must-see TV. The Lady Vols were playing Duke on ESPN. And the president was on a few other channels, with a speech of some sort.

But for the university, which over the last 90-odd years has treated its neighborhood with the same regard that Sherman treated Atlanta, leveling even its own historic buildings along the way, the mere fact of the meeting was something of a milestone. UT, which is one of the few American universities to claim an 18th-century founding date, boasts only two structures built by the university before the 20th century, and one of themâ’s in bad condition.

The occasion was the rollout of the Campus Heritage Project, enabled by a $150,000 Getty Foundation grant. Ezzell, who is director of UTâ’s Community Partnership Center, sees it as a long-delayed opportunity to help UT catch up with its peers aesthetically and historically.

He says that among the nationâ’s leading research universities, all have some buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as some sort of preservationist policy. UT, founded in 1796 and on its current campus since 1826, has no buildings on the historic register and no real policy concerning preservation. In a slide show, Ezzell pointed out a graphic anomaly: The University of Evansville has a building that closely resembles UTâ’s landmark Ayres Hall, built the same year, 1919, and designed by the same architectural firm. Evansvilleâ’s Olmsted Hall has been on the National Register for 25 years. Ayres Hall is notâ"largely because National Register designation requires some participation by the owner.

â“Itâ’s shocking to me that they do not have a single structure on the Register,â” says Kim Trent, chief of the preservationist organization Knox Heritage. â“The Indian Moundâ"thatâ’s it!â”

Though UT owns about 76 buildings that are more than 50 years old, according to an assessment by Middle Tennessee State Universityâ’s Center for Historic Preservation, Ayres Hall is one of only 12 that are even eligible for consideration in the Register. The others have been compromised by additions and remodelings.

To be fair, the historic tax credits associated with a National Register listing, which become an immediate and practical motive to preserve downtown and elsewhere, is not as much of an inducement on an untaxed state campus. However, Trent says several grants are available to fund preservation projects involving historic-register buildings. â“You just need a lawyer and an accountant to make it work,â” she says.

Ezzell claims preservation also helps with recruitment, at all levels. â“Weâ’re not just sentimental about the past,â” says Ezzell. â“This helps UT be a national research institution.â” He says obviously historic colleges like those of the Ivy League and U.Va. find it easier to recruit both students and top faculty partly just by their historic appearance, and that UT has suffered for its lack of a collegiate atmosphere. â“You donâ’t want buildings that look like an IBM office,â” he says. â“You donâ’t go to college for 15 years to work in a cubicle. You want high ceilings and hardwood floors,â” the trappings of academia.

Among those recommended for the National Register in the MTSU study: on the Hill, Ayres Hall (1919), Estabrook Hall (1898), and Ferris Hall (1930) and the Earth and Planetary Sciences Building, formerly Physics and Geology (1929); on the Ag campus, the Brehm Animal Sciences Building (1958), Morgan Hall (1921), and the TVA Greenhouse (1936); Cowan Cottage, an 1879 outbuilding originally for a private residence; the Early Learning Research Center, a 1937 building on White Avenue; Hopecote, the well-known medieval-styled cottage built in 1924 and now used as a guest house; Jessie Harris Hall, the 1926 Home Ec Building; and Tyson Alumni Center, the ca. 1890 former residence. The McClung Museum is said to be eligible in 2012. The Eugenia Williams house, the UT-owned home on Lyons View, may also be in the running, but was not part of the campus-centric study.

The study suggests a few historic districts, including the Hill and the Ag Campus, in which buildings not individually eligible due to internal compromises could nonetheless contribute by virtue of their external appearance.

Ezzell thinks the easiest building to restore may be Cowan Cottage, a brick oddity at White and 16th. Built by the wealthy Cowan family, whose extravagant Victorian mansion faced Cumberland, the cottage originally housed their English gardener. Another outbuilding to a long-gone Victorian mansion still stands a block to the east, but it didnâ’t make the MTSU cut, due to compromises. â“The houses went, they were too big,â” Ezzell says. â“The outbuildings stayed.â”

The MTSU recommendations were disappointing to some. Several buildings look plenty historic from the outside, but have been too compromised on the inside to make the cut. They include the oldest building on campus, 1872 South College; ornate Austin Peay; and the old Hoskins Library, the early â’30s collegiate-gothic building on Cumberland Avenue, often cited for its ornate interior, much of which is still intact. But in the judgment of the MTSU committee, it had been too compromised by pragmatic modern â“improvementsâ” liked dropped ceilings and a 1960s addition which, at this writing, appears to be falling off the old building. Some have also hoped to save Aconda Court, the ca. 1920 apartment building at Cumberland and Volunteer Boulevard with vaguely Egyptian stylings, but its radical remodelings have included building out its original courtyard. Itâ’s slated to be demolished for the mega-student-center project.

Though frustrated efforts to save historic buildings on UTâ’s campus go back to 1919, when architect John Staub objected to the demolition of the campusâ’s original 1826 building, Ezzell says the current effort dates from a student initiative in 2004, when a student senate resolution called for a strategy to encourage historic preservation on campus. It was promptly followed by a similar resolution in the faculty senate, which resulted in a task-force study, and a strongly worded statement in March, 2006, condemning the universityâ’s â“idiosyncraticâ” record in terms of preservation, and further stating that â“current policy...ignores the benefits of [preservation] beyond monetary consideration, and insures that campus historic properties are never likely to be recognized...â”

Why this first step in campus preservation policy is happening now is apparently unrelated to the recent turbulence in Andy Holt Tower. Ezzell had been working closely with Loren Crabtree, the chancellor who unexpectedly resigned on Jan. 3, citing differences with UT President John Petersen.

â“Crabtree was very supportive,â” Ezzell says, â“and weâ’re optimistic about the future.â” As chancellor, Crabtree oversaw the demolition of several arguably historic buildings on campus, and he disappointed campus preservationists several years ago when he declined to sign an earlier application for the Getty grant finally earned in 2006. Some blame his mixed record on the influence of former Vice President Phil Scheurer, who consistently opposed any preservation policy before his retirement a couple of years ago. Some town preservationists believe Petersen to be a hearty supporter of campus preservation, but Ezzell says he has not yet discussed the project with the president, or with the interim chancellor.

Among the preliminary suggestions are changing UTâ’s current fixed-map plan, in which expansions may be committed to a certain place, no matter whatâ’s there, to a policy-based plan; and encouraging, through incentives, UT faculty and staff to live in historic neighborhoods near campus, a policy already in place in Chattanooga.

The next public meeting to discuss plans and strategies will be on April 17. â" Jack Neely


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