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VOL. 121 | NO. 248 | Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Master Plan: Seminary Expands, Wants to Preserve Historic Home

By Andy Meek

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"We've been spending time since we closed on the house trying to develop some of the long-range plans to be able to show the Office of Planning and Development what our ultimate goal is."
- Dr. Daniel J. Earheart-Brown
President of Memphis Theological Seminary

Memphis Theological Seminary, the religious institution whose campus is nestled among a cluster of mansions along East Parkway, has been working with The Crump Firm and is spending more than $1 million to enlarge its footprint in the city.

Earlier this year, school officials bought a third historic home - next to the two existing buildings the school owns in Midtown - with the idea of transforming it into new office space and classrooms. It is part of a larger master plan, for which details still are being worked out, intended to help carry the school well into the future.

Almost immediately, the plan will allow the school to raise its profile by expanding the roughly 5-acre campus along one of the city's most picturesque, tree-lined thoroughfares.

Moving forward

The $1.2 million purchase and renovation of the home at 184 E. Parkway S. is one of the larger details of the MTS master plan. And the school, which was founded in the 1850s in McKenzie, Tenn., is filing an application on Dec. 28 to create a planned development at the site of the home.

That application is being submitted so it will be included on a coming agenda of the Memphis and Shelby County Land Use Control Board.

"We've been working with The Crump Firm, because we feel like they can help us design a campus that is based on the classic architecture of Founders Hall - the main building - and that would be a very distinctive campus here in the heart of Midtown," said school president Dr. Daniel J. Earheart-Brown.

Though the new home was purchased at the beginning of 2006, school officials have been moving slowly on the project. One reason an application for a planned development is only now being filed is that the school didn't want to submit a proposal piecemeal, one focused on only a sliver of the campus.

Furthermore, the surrounding neighborhood has a well-preserved, distinctive character, something school officials were eager to leave unspoiled with a new addition to the seminary.

"We've been spending time since we closed on the house trying to develop some of the long-range plans to be able to show the Office of Planning and Development what our ultimate goal is," Earheart-Brown said.

God, country and work

Brenda Solomito is the land planner who's representing the interests of the theological school, which in the last few years has accommodated between 330 and 350 students.

"They've been doing work on the home - renovations and that kind of thing - but they need the planned development designation to get it approved for office use," she said. "I can tell you OPD is really excited about the project."

One reason might be because of the seminary's quiet staying power. Transforming the newly purchased home and re-zoning the property on which it sits is the next milestone for a school whose roots pre-date the Civil War.

The seminary was founded on the campus of Bethel College in McKenzie, which is a small town north of Jackson, Tenn. Leaders of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church - with which the school is affiliated, though it bills itself as an ecumenical seminary - determined in the late 1950s that the school needed to be shifted to a large urban area to be better-positioned for growth.

In the early 1960s, the campus was moved to Memphis. Founders Hall, the school's distinctive main building, was built around 1911 by Joseph Newburger, a successful Memphis cotton merchant, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's a wonderful house, and they've restored it quite well," said June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage Inc.

Theological draw

The seminary re-opened its doors there for the fall semester in 1964 and, since then, has not stopped growing by leaps and bounds. The first year in its current home, MTS accommodated 47 students, compared to more than 300 today.

One interesting fact about the school's population is that about one-third live more than 100 miles from the school and commute to class.

In October, MTS held a showcase for local interior designers in the school's soon-to-be-renovated new building, which served as the first general public unveiling of the school's latest addition. Proceeds from the showcase will be used to fund scholarships and other operating costs.

"To get their master plan approved, they have an overall campus master plan that's been prepared by The Crump Firm," Solomito said.

Meanwhile, as the renovation project progresses, school officials also are trying to balance it with the concerns of neighbors who want to be reassured the school will maintain the integrity of East Parkway's current streetscape frontage, Earheart-Brown said.

"We've taken the slow approach to this," he said. "And whatever we do down the road will be something that enhances our neighborhood's property values."

MTS offers a slate of degrees that include master of arts in religion; master of divinity and doctor of ministry. Most students pursue master of divinity degrees, according to school research.

The seminary's library includes more than 90,000 bound volumes and the school is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, as well as the Commission on Colleges and Schools of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

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