Restored Minvilla Housing Wins National Award

Historic building finds new life as residence for the homeless

Locally, Minvilla Manor has long been an object of contempt, resentment, and ridicule—the city condemned the residential eyesore, long known as the Fifth Avenue Motel, in 2002, and it hasn't been long since folks were saying it should just be torn down. But this Thursday, in Buffalo, N.Y., that very same stack of bricks is receiving a rare national distinction. The renovation of the 1913 townhouse complex has earned the National Trust/Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary's Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation. It's the highest award any Knoxville project has ever earned.

Completed about a year ago by Volunteer Ministry Center, with significant assistance from city and county government and the preservationist group Knox Heritage, the renovation has yielded 57 units of what's called "permanent supportive housing." It serves disabled or otherwise challenged formerly homeless who qualify. At this week's 2011 National Preservation Conference, the National Trust bestowed several awards to people and places from New Hampshire to Guam. Some of them involved buildings designed by famous architects like Louis Kahn. But the Minvilla citation was among the top tier of this year's awards, which included only three specific preservation projects.

Ginny Weatherstone, director of VMC, has never been known as a historic preservationist before—her concern is taking care of people in need—but she's now in Buffalo to accept the award at that city's historic Kleinhans Music Hall, as is Knoxville architect Mark Allan, of Allan Associates, who designed the project. The National Trust's board, by the way, includes some interesting celebrities, including well-known architecture writer Paul Goldberger, actress Dianne Keaton, and former first lady Laura Bush, who may be attending. They have all at least heard of Minvilla Manor.

"We are very pleased and very proud," says Weatherstone, "and we've been beaten up over this so much, it's nice to get this kind of attention."

A large factor in the surprise distinction was the distance traveled, in terms of obstacles overcome. The Trust praised the project's "creative financing" which included historic credits and low-income tax credits. Minvilla may be the most financially complicated renovation project in local history, weaving together about nine sources of financial support. David Brown, the National Trust's chief preservation officer, is in Buffalo for the convention. He's based in Washington, but he can talk about Minvilla as if he's looking at it.

"Several things come into play here," Brown says of the honor. "I think, number one, the fact that so many partners came to play a role in this particular project. The city, the county, Knox Heritage, the private developers. It shows how oftentimes to save these important places, you need more than one person to step up. And this was a place that was important to the city. It's on a flagship corner, it's very visible. It's important for us to say that government and private partners can come together to save these places for the future."

Use of a high-profile renovation for indigent services is unusual locally, but not unprecedented nationally. "The one thing we've found in historic preservation is that these buildings can be used for a lot of things beyond their original use," says Brown. "And we have actually worked on a lot of projects that a community is providing home for homeless or low-income residents. It's a good use of these buildings, and residents get a very special place to live in. And help them to become productive members of the community again."

Brown talks about his staffers coming to Knoxville "to work with Kim," which of course means Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, who has some national status in preservation. Last year, she was tapped to join the board of the National Trust. She's also in Buffalo this week. (She was, for the record, not a member of the jury that gave Minvilla its new award.) She and Knox Heritage have been involved with saving the building since before the VMC bought it. KH helped stabilize it after it was condemned, and assisted in gaining National Register status and historic tax credits.

"We're just really proud they're getting this award," Trent says. "This is a very high honor. They competed with projects all over the nation." Bigger than the more-common Honor Award, she says it's a "special designation, a very high honor from both HUD and the National Trust. And it is a model for other communities to look at as another way they can re-use buildings for modern solutions to problems."

Coincidentally, a comparable local project is opening the same month the first was honored. "Plenty of buildings as they age and go out of style become ‘affordable housing'" says Trent, ruefully, "but a different kind of affordable housing. In this case, though, it's nice because it's been repeated over at Eastport School, by KCDC. That building was on our endangered list. In the original plan, they thought they were going to have to tear down the building to build senior housing." Instead, the subsidized senior-housing project is going into the now-renovated old brick school. "They decided to save it, and they're doing the ribbon-cutting next week."

The Minvilla project has drawn fire both for its public costs and from neighbors in the Fourth and Gill area, some of them erstwhile preservationists who object to this further step in concentration of indigent services along one short section of Broadway that has become known as the "Mission District."

"There was definitely some resistance," says Trent, "and the building got caught up in the bigger discussion that we're still having about homeless housing. People have now seen what it has become, and see that it has become a positive structure in the neighborhood. I think that a lot of times people will blame buildings for problems. And they think that if they just knock the building over it'll solve their problems. It very rarely does. The building should be part of the solution. And it will be there for a long time, and it will be repurposed again. And that's what we do. Preservation is figuring out how to use old buildings for new purposes."

As of this week, Weatherstone says 50 of the Minvilla's 57 apartments are occupied. Other prospective tenants are making their way through the approval process; to qualify, they have to prove low-income status as well as disability, mental or physical.

Weatherstone's main interest isn't preservation but helping what she calls the "formerly homeless"—because if they have an apartment at Minvilla, they're no longer homeless—with careful case management. That can be accomplished in non-historic settings, and usually is. But with some encouragement she found partnering with preservationists was a way to solve two big problems.

"We looked around, the old Fifth Avenue Motel was our neighbor. And it was not a pleasant neighbor, to say the least. We knew what was going on in there and we didn't much like it, and didn't want that for our closest neighbor."

It was relatively expensive—if not by downtown-condo standards, perhaps by homeless-shelter standards. In all, about $7.2 million has been spent on the project, representing more than $100,000 per unit. Some say it's too much to spend on the formerly homeless.

"My response to that criticism, which I have to say I get a lot, is that we did not accomplish one thing, we accomplished two," reiterates Weatherstone. "The success of Minvilla in terms of people moving in, really taking advantage of case management, really making improvements to their lives is I think proof of success in our first goal, which is to provide housing for formerly homeless people who need the advantage of some supportive services. The fact that we have won this award tells me we have succeeded in the second thing as well-—which was the historic preservation of a building that was disintegrating before our very eyes. Not only disintegrating, but harboring some really destructive activity. That is no longer the case. And the neighborhood I think is graced with a truly beautiful building."

Brown says this secondary effect of beautifying a well-traveled corner—it is, for many, a daily conduit to downtown—was one factor that tipped the scales for the national award. Even for citizens who never set foot inside the place, it's a landmark.

"I think that if we had lost that building," says Trent, "it would have really been a detrimental thing to Downtown North and the gateway to the historic neighborhoods. Now that we've redeveloped that, we have that instead of a vacant lot that would have probably been vacant for a long time. When people drive through that intersection, it doesn't look like homeless housing. It looks like something that contributes to the neighborhood and to the streetscape."

That bonus may have unexpected effects on the tenants themselves.

"It has a very warm, friendly feel about it, I think," says Weatherstone. "Not to toot our own horn, but I think we did a fabulous job. They love it." Earlier this week she showed a VMC donor around the place. "He said, ‘How do you keep it so clean?' It is amazing the pride that people take in it. There's no mess left around. People are not leaving candy-bar wrappers or Coke cans around. You walk out in the backyard to sit at the gazebo, and it's clean. There is a sense of pride that was a surprise, and a wonderful surprise."