Despite Poor Record of Historic Preservation, UT May Be Changing Its Attitude. But Can It Afford To?

With the western facade of the University of Tennessee's Henley Street conference center in a state of hazardous disrepair, UT officials hope to replace hundreds of the '50s-era structure's trademark blue glazed tiles with something "very similar.... to help maintain the architectural integrity of the building"; a funding request is pending. Meanwhile, historic university properties such as the Queen Anne-style Cowan Cottage on 16th Street sit neglected and unused, still waiting for restoration monies such as the additional $1 million slated for replacing the conference center's falling tiles.

Waiting, but maybe not without hope. The university has never been lauded for its historic preservation efforts, but there are some indications that they might become more of a priority in the coming years. Last year, the Community Partnership Center, a division of the school's Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment, issued a nearly 200-page Campus Heritage Preservation Plan, the substance of which comprises 16 recommendations for preserving UT's historic and archaeological resources.

"We do have an interest in maintaining the architectural integrity of our buildings," says UT Director of Facilities Planning George Criss. "I think the current Ayres Hall restoration project is a good example of our commitment. Going forward, there's going to be more of an effort along those lines."

Criss says the campus preservation plan is being incorporated into the university's current master plan, which is currently in formulation and will remain so for several months to come.

And for local preservationists, it won't happen a moment too soon. Knox Heritage Executive Director Kim Trent says the school's performance has been largely dismal—even through numerous administration changes—marked by demolitions of old properties, neglect of resources, and sometimes outright hostility toward the very concept of historic preservation. And she thinks it's no coincidence, for instance, when the latest Princeton Review rankings (allegedly culled from student feedback) rate UT-Knoxville as the 10th "least beautiful" campus in the country.

"My automatic response is that often the most beautiful campuses are ones that have done a good job preserving historic architecture," says Trent. She allows that Knox Heritage and preservation-minded Knoxvillians in general have long lobbied and hoped for the university to improve in its stewardship of more venerable campus properties.

"At those schools where preservation is a priority, there's a sense of weight and tradition and heritage," she continues. "It's something the students can connect with. But it doesn't seem there's been any attempt over the last 40 years to work historic architecture into the space needs of the campus. Maybe some efforts, but overall it seems there's been a general disregard."

According to Trent, historic preservation has generally been a hard sell at UT-Knoxville, dating back to the tenure of former administrator Phil Scheurer, who as vice president of operations at UT "really had no appreciation at all for historic preservation.

"He [Scheurer] said in a meeting once that historic preservation would cause ‘a tsunami of problems,'" she says with a rueful chuckle. "I'll never forget that."

Since then, she says support for preservation efforts has waxed and waned through the bewildering game of musical chairs that has played out at the university's top levels of administration throughout the new millennium. But the net effect, she says, has been that "the problem has continued unabated."

She cites as examples of the university's apparent disregard for preservation the lack of maintenance on the UT conference center, leading to the removal of the building's western façade; damage and lack of maintenance to old buildings such as the Eugenia Williams House and Cowan Cottage, the latter being boarded up and seemingly put to pasture; and continued expansion into Fort Sanders at the expense of historic properties there.

"We've heard of many National Register-eligible buildings being discussed for demolition instead of adaptive reuse," she says. "We think there are people who would be happy to give for the sake of historic preservation on campus, but there has not been a specific push for that type of fund-raising."

But according to Community Partnership Center Director Tim Ezzell, change is afoot, though it is a necessarily slow and gradual change, due to a host of complicated—and complicating—issues unique to a sprawling public institution like a large land-grant university.

Ezzell says the chance to create a campus preservation plan came through a special grant from the J. Paul Getty Foundation; work proceeded in conjunction with the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University.

"It was a great opportunity that arose, and it was something that was needed," says Ezzell, noting that the administrative impetus came from former UT Vice President Loren Crabtree. "[Crabtree] recognized we had lots of important resources, and that it was important to take care of those as we move along."

The plan included 16 recommendations for preservation of historic resources, such as: prioritizing the preservation of the campuses' remaining 19th century structures; pursuing partnerships with community organizations to secure restoration for the aforementioned Cowan Cottage; considering seeking National Register Historic District status for The Hill and for the Ag campus/River Road area; designating a campus historic preservation officer and restoring the position of Campus Planner, too; and switching to a policy-based planning approach.

More than a year after the plan emerged, how does Ezzell rate the university's efforts at incorporating its recommendations? "I think we're trying to do better, starting to see changes," Ezzell says.

He points to the renovations currently underway at Ayres Hall, including attempts to restore original features and landscape, as an example. He also lauds UT for renaming a couple of buildings for historic figures. "I think that was an important step," he says.

"But people don't understand the challenges UT faces here," he continues. "For one thing, UT doesn't have complete control of a lot of these buildings; ultimately, many of them are controlled by the state."

He says a scarcity of maintenance funding is another issue. Modernization issues are also rampant—such as adapting old buildings that may have been designed for, perhaps, a few lights and some typewriters, to the power requirements of a modern academic facility. "You're talking about a lot of infrastructure," he says.

"It's a tough balance to achieve. Ultimately, UT is not a theme park, and its mission is not to maintain a pristine historical environment. To a degree, you can put historic preservation into that mission, but sometimes it gets difficult, especially when funding is tight."

Criss, too, acknowledges that "in an institution like UT, you're always going to have competing needs for funding and space, and those have to be reconciled."

But given the university's track record, preservationists like Trent remain skeptical. "We were hopeful things would change after Scheurer, but that doesn't seem to be what happened," she says. "I think the only way you're going to really change what happens at UT is through the governor's office. The governor is chairman of the board of trustees, and he appoints the members of the state building commission."