Knox Heritage Makes Urgent Appeal as Eugenia Williams Mansion Deteriorates

Offering $200,000 of its own money, representing most of a fund intended to buy neglected historic properties to preserve them, Knox Heritage is making an urgent plea to stabilize the Lyons View mansion known as the Eugenia Williams house. The 70-year-old old brick mansion stands deep behind a high brick wall between Kingston Pike and Cherokee Country Club, on 24 riverfront acres.

Knox Heritage Director Kim Trent says she's appalled at how rapidly the property has deteriorated just in the last few months. When she toured the house in May 2008, she says, the house structurally was in pretty sound shape, even though no one had lived there for 25 years. Since then, some interior ceilings have caved in. Obvious water damage is much worse than it was two years ago. There may be a leak in the roof, she says—or it may just be that the gutters are full of leaves, and water's pooling in the eaves.

"It sounds like they haven't even paid anybody to clean out the gutters," she says of the owner, which is the University of Tennessee.

UT has owned the conspicuous property for 12 years, and has done little to maintain it. In the last fiscal year, Knox Heritage says UT spent only $1,645 in utilities and maintenance on the Williams house. According to KH figures, UT spent $1,439 on utilities, and $206 to board up some windows with plywood. In total, UT spent about $4.50 a day to maintain the house. The property is worth an estimated $4.8 million.

The house has been on KH's Fragile 15 list of endangered properties for two years, but Trent says KH made the urgent offer because of its recent deterioration and a high degree of community interest. Neighbors are reportedly worried that the condition of the long-vacant house, which has become a target for vandalism, is depressing property values. Preservationists who admire its unusual design, the work of a well-known architect, believe UT's allowing the property to waste away violates the terms of the will by which the university obtained the valuable property.

"I'm surprised at the number of people who call us about it," she says. Volunteers have offered to move in, as caretakers, to fix the house; some are interested in a long-term lease. Some want to purchase it.

KH proposes to use its own resources to pay only to stabilize the house, by National Park Service standards, and prevent further deterioration. By the proposal, if UT were to sell the property within five years, the university would reimburse KH for 75 percent of its costs in maintaining the house.

Trent says KH first made this proposal quietly, via UT's interim President Jan Simek, in October.

"We thought we'd received a positive first response," she says. Simek said he'd refer the KH proposal to UT's legal department.

The proposal impresses some who are associated with UT, if not the administration. Architecture professor George Dodds, who has taken the initiative to consider profitable uses for the property, praises it. "The KH proposal, as I understand it, is generous, timely, and much needed," he says.

However, after making its pitch in October, KH heard nothing further from UT's administration. The preservationist organization's e-mails to UT's legal department in October and November went unanswered.

On Feb. 8, KH sent a letter to Simek and distributed it to the UT Board of Trustees, who are meeting this Wednesday and Thursday, in Martin, Tenn., and made the issue public.

UT administrators have previously declined to comment on the issue. This week, a call to UT's legal office wasn't returned. UT Assistant Vice President for Communications Gina Stafford said Tuesday, "At this point we would stand by acknowledging that we received a letter from Knox Heritage and will respond to them directly. As a state entity, there are processes we have to follow regarding property decisions."

The house's design is a rarity in Knoxville, an example of Regency architecture, with bas-relief stone sculpture inside. It's a credit to John Fanz Staub, maybe the best-known architect ever born in Knoxville. The grandson of a Swiss immigrant who was a Knoxville mayor and downtown developer, Staub made most of his own career in the Houston area, where his grand manor-style houses are still well known. He designed at least one other house in his home town, Hopecote. Coincidentally, it's also owned by UT, now a maintained guest residence on campus.

Though he earned his masters in architecture from MIT, before UT had an architecture school, Staub is a UT alumnus, class of 1913.

To be fair, ownership of the house has been a legally thorny problem for UT. Heiress Eugenia Williams built the house in 1940-41, replacing a previous house she had inherited from her father, physician David Hitt Williams, who made a fortune investing with the Roddy family in a regional Coca-Cola distributorship before his death in 1929. Divorced from a World War I veteran and childless, Eugenia Williams died in 1998. By the terms of a 1981 will, she bequeathed the property to the university "on condition that the said land not be subdivided or sold, in whole or in part, so long as there is a state-operated university in the vicinity of Knoxville."

She expressed her desire that the house and property "be used for some educational, residential, social, cultural, or business purpose as will promote an interest of the University of Tennessee."

In 12 years UT has never found such a purpose. Some charge the university has never made it a priority to find one. At the time of the bequest, the house was briefly discussed as a president's mansion to replace the less-grand chateau on Cherokee Boulevard, which is almost two miles closer to campus.

So far independent of UT's administration, Professor Dodds has for the last several months been trying to launch a Center for Conservation and Stewardship, a southeastern regional resource for the study of preservation of historic buildings as well as natural and cultural landscapes. Such a center would bring together graduate students and national experts in a studio setting. It's only a proposal, unapproved by the administration, and he's careful in describing his interest in the property.

"We would explore uses for the Williams estate," he says.

Several sources inside and outside the university admit suspicions that UT has deliberately neglected upkeep on the house in hopes that it will collapse, by one theory making the will easier to deal with. Tom McAdams, one of Knoxville's best-known corporate lawyers and Knox Heritage's general counsel, is familiar with the property; the offices of the law firm of Bernstein, Stair, McAdams are just around the corner from it. He says demolition by neglect is a pattern for UT, and he calls it a waste of public resources.

"It doesn't make much difference legally," says McAdams of the "demolition by neglect" he and other suspect is afoot. "But it could help them politically to say they don't have the funds to save the house. It's what they did with the Keller House on Cumberland Avenue."

McAdams says he knows of a likely solution that would allow UT to sell the property and thereby profit from it. "If the original terms of the gift can no longer be satisfied, you can go to Chancery Court and ask the court to revise the terms of a gift," McAdams says. He refers to an old English common-law standard called cy-pres, which holds that in cases of changing circumstances, a donor's will can be satisfied if his or her intentions are satisfied.

"Her number-one purpose was to establish a memorial to her father," he says. "Her secondary purpose was to preserve the land and the buildings, especially the land."

The Williams family had little association with UT—they also left money to Vanderbilt University and other charities. McAdams thinks Williams considered UT, in 1981, to be the local institution most trustworthy to make use of the property in a prominent way. When Williams signed her will, McAdams says, UT was buying residences for administrators. The university has since ceased doing so. McAdams cites that as one factor that's shifted. It's also likely the university was in better fiscal shape 30 years ago. Knox Heritage's letter to UT acknowledges presumably financial "short-term challenges the University faces in maintaining the property."

"It would be wonderful if the university had a use for it," McAdams says, but he has found no evidence that they do—or that the university has even been trying to find one. McAdams says he's been through the board's minutes, and has found only two references to the Eugenia Williams property in the last 12 years: one when they accepted the gift, and one when they approved transferring the land to the UT Foundation. "And that was never done," he says.

"The university doesn't have any use for the Eugenia Williams estate. They haven't shown any desire," McAdams says. He'd like to see the property sold with easements that would preserve it, with funds to go to UT and establish a memorial for Dr. Williams, perhaps elsewhere.

That's down the road. Professor Dodds says, "The first thing that has to be done—and has to be done in short order—is to stabilize the property" to stop its apparently rapid deterioration. He and the leadership of Knox Heritage are hoping for good news from the Board of Trustees this week.

UPDATE: Wednesday afternoon, just after we had printed the current issue, we received word that UT Interim President Jan Simek had declined Knox Heritage's offer to help stabilize the Eugenia Williams house. Simek's letter to Knox Heritage director Kim Trent stated:

"In the next few weeks, the University will begin some additional stabilization repairs to the residence with designated private gift funds. Although your offer of short-term financial assistance is sincerely appreciated, funds are available for the short-term needs. In addition, we are evaluating all options for the property and do not want to limit any of the options by considering your proposal at this time."

Trent responds, "We're happy that they did decide to at least begin stabilizing the property. But that doesn't provide a long-term solution for saving the property. We hope we can work with them to find a solution that preserves the house and benefits the university."

Story updated to include UT's response to Knox Heritage's offer.