Decaying Heritage: Historic preservation reaches ‘tipping point’

By Tom Wilemon

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Historic Memphis is rotting faster than the deteriorating economy.

Tight credit markets, long foreclosure lists, frequent mortgage flipping and financially struggling property owners have proven to be bigger threats to the city’s landmark structures than bulldozers. Demolition by neglect is rampant, and preservation leaders don’t yet know what to do about it.

“We’re talking about losing entire blocks,” Keith Kays, a member of the Memphis Landmarks Commission, mused at a recent retreat.

The commissioners and other preservationists worry about the crumbling buildings Downtown, the vacant houses in Midtown and the closed historic museums that belong to the city.

There is no single umbrella organization in Memphis and Shelby County with the overarching mission or the financial backing to coordinate historic preservation efforts between the public and private sectors on the same scale the Memphis Bioworks Foundation nurtures biotechnology or the Memphis Regional Chamber promotes logistics operations.

Yet Memphis is one of the top cities in the United States for the number of properties it has on the National Register of Historic Places, at 159.

The tourists who visit the Memphis Welcome Center won’t find any guidebook to these historic places. They’ll be hard pressed to locate a bed-and-breakfast. And they won’t know there’s more to Memphis than Elvis, juke joints and barbecue.

Community activists in the Rozelle Annesdale neighborhood would like to see the façade of the old Lamar Theater restored. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

Preservationists are increasingly linking historic buildings to heritage tourism and other money-making ventures in an attempt to save them from destruction. But neighborhood activists such as Stoy Bailey, who are on the front lines of the preservation battle, seek an investment in hope.

Saving a neighborhood

Rozelle-Annesdale, where Bailey lives, was struggling before the recession.

“What happened with us in my neighborhood is we’re somewhat of the hole in a doughnut,” Bailey said. “We are surrounded by more or less superior housing areas. People will come here and buy a foreclosure and get it cheap. They can do little or nothing to it and rent it out to anybody.”

He’s watched as historic homes have been converted to boarding houses or been flipped through multiple mortgages or foreclosed and left vacant. As one of the founding members of the Rozelle-Annesdale Neighborhood Association, he has doggedly worked for decades to improve the area.

Rozelle Annesdale is bordered by Central Gardens in the north, Cooper-Young in the east, Annesdale-Snowden in the west and Glenview in the south. It is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Eighty-percent of its structures were built before 1940, according to the Rozelle-Annesdale Plan for Growth and Development.

On a rainy morning, Bailey pointed to termite holes in the porch of one of three boarded-up Victorian cottages on Euclid Avenue. Then he picked up a rusted nail from a fallen column.

“Story of the house: old rusted nail had its day,” he said.

Bailey is at times resigned and at times angry when he talks about the neighborhood. He’s still smarting over a decision of “sheer ignorance and arrogance” by Shelby County officials to demolish three brick bungalows behind an old hardware store building on Lamar Avenue that had been deeded to the county. Now, the houses on the other side of the street look out onto vacant lots. There’s no buffer between them and the traffic on Lamar.

“If we’re going to rebuild in that area and do anything decent, we’re going to have to take care of these houses,” he said. “To take care of them, we needed to maintain a streetscape. Now, we don’t have one.”

A nonprofit entity could have renovated the houses, sold them and then invested the profit into turning the hardware building into a neighborhood center, he said. Another big item on Bailey’s wish list is to restore the façade of the Lamar Theater.

Cynthia Gibbs works on a home that is being rebuilt along Vesey Street in the Rozelle-Annesdale neighborhood. Homes in the area must conform to certain architectural specifications because of the area’s historic preservation status. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

The neighborhood may benefit from a share of the $11.4 million in federal stimulus funds to acquire and rehabilitate foreclosed and vacant homes in Memphis. His neigborhood is in the 38114 ZIP code, which is at the bottom of the list of the top 10 ZIPs targeted for the program, according to the City of Memphis Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Bailey has kept a close watch on public notices of sales and mortgages.

“You see a property going from mortgage to mortgage to mortgage and jumping $30,000 and $40,000 and $50,000 a jump,” he said. “You’ve got a house no sane person would pay more than $10,000 for and then it’s listed for $70,000 or $80,000. Something is wrong.”

The neighborhood’s goals are spelled out in the growth and development plan, which was approved in 2005.

“We feel in large part, in a neighborhood like mine, that we deal in hope,” Bailey said.

Convincing officials

Victorian Village has some of the oldest and most elegant houses in Memphis. The city owns two of them, the Mallory-Neely House and the Magevney House, which are designated historic museums. Both are closed to the public.

Scott Blake, the executive director of Victorian Village Inc., has approached city officials about allowing the community development corporation to assume management of city-owned historical museums in the district that have been closed for years. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

Scott Blake, the executive director of Victorian Village Inc., recently approached the Memphis City Council about turning over responsibility for the buildings to the nonprofit community development corporation, which was formed in 2006.

The structures have been closed for more than four years because of budget cutbacks, and they need maintenance work. Built in the 1830s by an Irish immigrant, the Magevney House is a small, middle-class home. By contrast, the Mallory-Neely House is a 25-room mansion built in 1852.

Three other privately owned historic homes are also closed because of “poor structural conditions,” according to the Victorian Village Redevelopment Plan.

Blake said he believes if this district was packaged and marketed with other historical resources, the city could attract tourists who would stay longer and spend more money.

“It’s like money laying on the ground,” he said. “Nobody really realizes what great potential there is. That’s what’s amazing to me.”

Nancy Jane Baker, the manager of the Memphis Landmarks Commission, has identified about $5,000 left over from grants to survey the two city properties and assess maintenance needs.

“I’m sure the foundation logs of the Magevney House are gone,” Baker said.

Assessing resources

Victorian Village is one of several neighborhoods in Memphis with its own community development corporation. The problem is few have any money.

“We’ve got to pull all the agencies together to figure out what everybody is doing and do some kind of education for the larger community,” Baker said.

The Memphis Landmarks Commission enforces the design review guidelines for city-designated historic districts and promotes preservation efforts. It has a small staff and limited budget.

The nonprofit Memphis Heritage Inc., which was established in 1975, also operates with a limited budget and skeleton staff. In recent years, it has focused on protecting landmarks where new developments have been proposed and increasing education and awareness about why historic preservation is important.

John Griffin has taken advantage of a federal tax credit program to recoup part of the costs of restoring investment properties in a National Historic District in the Uptown neighborhood. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

“As an education advocacy organization, we have to choose our battles,” said June West, the executive director of Memphis Heritage. “I’m sure there are people out there who disagree with the battles we pick. Chick-fil-A is an example – the Cumberland (Presbyterian Church administration) building on Union. There are preservationists who think that is a failure because we weren’t able to save the whole building. I think what we are saving is some sense of streetscape of what Union was.

“If we hadn’t saved the façade and the tower, the whole lot was gong to be subgrade asphalt. Now, you’re going to have at least a green hill, a façade, an outdoor eating area.”

The organization has just initiated a public campaign to preserve the streetscape of Madison Avenue and the character of Overton Square, where a grocery store development has been proposed. This could be an uphill battle because the square is not in a city-designated historic protection district, although any demolition work must be approved by the Memphis City Council. A developer has the right by zoning to put a grocery store on the property, which is under contract.

Memphis Heritage is also working with the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corp. to develop a plan for preserving musicians’ homes in the Soulsville district.

“I think historic preservation in the big scheme of things is seen as a wealthy, white interest,” West said. “It shouldn’t be. Our goal is to make it not that way as much as possible.”

Combating neglect

Overton Square is the kind of high-profile place that quickly generates community concern. More than 60 people attended a recent meeting to discuss the buildings there.

June West is the executive director of Memphis Heritage Inc., a nonprofit organization that seeks to maintain and save architecturally and historically significant buildings, open spaces, streets, neighborhoods and parks in Shelby County. West spearheaded a recent campaign that resulted in saving a wall of a Cumberland Presbyterian Church building along Union Avenue next to a Chick-Fil-A store that is being built on the lot. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

Many older structures, some in National Historic Districts and city-designated protection areas, don’t get the same attention. These houses are under threat of demolition from neglect.

They are owned by banks, absentee landlords and, in many cases, people who simply can’t afford to maintain them.

Baker of the Landmarks Commission does sporadic windshield tours of these properties and writes what she calls “polite” letters to the owners. She gets responses from people who say there’s no money for the house after paying for food, heating and cooling, medicine and taxes.

“I can’t argue with that,” she said.

Baker talked about the need to develop a coordinated plan to directly address demolition by neglect in historic districts and to provide help for homeowners.

“A lot of the lower-income folks really adore their homes, but they don’t have the wherewithal to do much about problems that arise,” Baker said. “The other part of that is we have a lot of elderly people in old homes. The older you get, the less you see what needs to be done or the less you can do. You don’t clean the gutters out and it begins to show.”

Currently, the enabling legislation for the Memphis Landmarks Commission does not have a demolition by neglect provision. Commissioners are reviewing ordinances from San Antonio, Texas, and Knoxville that have theses provisions, and are considering making a request for one in the new Unified Development Code.

Allowing B&Bs

One proposed change in the new code is language specifically addressing bed-and-breakfasts. Bob Price, president of the Tennessee Bed and Breakfast Association, said the organization has no members from Memphis and the city has zoning barricades to the establishments.

A bed-and-breakfast operation is not a defined use under the current zoning laws, said Dave Adams, a staff planner for the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. If someone wants to open a bed-and-breakfast, they have to obtain a use variation or submit a planned development application.

He described the planned development application as “a more elaborate, expensive and involved process.”

Stoy Bailey stands by a Victorian cottage, one of the first houses built in the first black subdivision in Memphis. The house was built in about 1900, and while Orange Mound was an older area, it was classified as part of the county when the North Annesdale subdivision was built. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

The new code may allow bed-and-breakfasts in residential urban zones, he said, but not residential single-family zones. A typical residential urban zone would be a more commercial area with apartment buildings, so it is unclear whether bed-and-breakfasts might be allowed in any actual historic districts. The establishments would also be allowed in areas with a “campus master plan,” Adams said.

“We at least have bed-and-breakfasts as a recognized category,” he said.

Using tax incentives

Some federal tax incentives allow investors who restore buildings in National Historic Districts and turn them into commercial ventures, such as a bread-and-breakfasts, to write off a portion of the income they derive from the buildings.

However, there are no such incentives for saving a historic structure if it is your home.

“I think we’re going to see that change in the next five to 10 years to justify the re-establishment of historic neighborhoods,” West said. “It’s just like buying a fuel-efficient car. You’re going to be restoring something that you’re not tearing down, that you’re not putting in the dump, that you’re not using energy to tear down.”

The economic downturn has actually spurred investment in some historic districts, Baker said. The Memphis Landmarks Commission has received applications from homeowners in Evergreen and Central Gardens to build onto the backs of their houses, whereas in years past they might have shopped for bigger homes in East Memphis, Germantown or Collierville.

West said she believes more people are becoming conscious of the societal benefits of living close to where they work.

“People are more aware of green building and recycling and the concept of using what you’ve got as opposed to a throw-away society,” she said. “It can affect buildings just as it can affect a paper cup.”

Developing unity

This trend has not occurred in other neighborhoods with some of the city’s most threatened architectural styles, such as shotgun cottages or two-story brick Italianate Victorians. All the wooden Italianate Victorians are already gone, Baker said.

“I’m really getting panicky about the shotguns,” she said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve lost probably 30 streets of shotguns.”

John Griffin, a member of Memphis Heritage’s board of directors, restored a brick Italianate house in the Greenlaw Addition National Historic District years before the Uptown area was redeveloped.

Besides the economic and educational barriers to preserving the city’s historical neighborhoods, Griffin sees another one.

“It’s just been real hard building a core of people who are urban and willing to live sort of multiculturally,” he said. “I think a little bit of our problem is a history of racial division that maybe still persists, sadly, and sometimes drives people to abandon a street if they think it’s not pure and unadulterated. Certainly, as we become a larger city, we will become more urban. It’s just a fact of the scale.”

Griffin, Blake, West, Baker, Bailey and the other Memphis preservationists have visions for saving and showcasing the city’s history and unique places. The challenge is to develop a unified plan for preserving these buildings and neighborhoods, then put it into action before the city loses its historic fabric. That task is more difficult when the economy is dry and the climate is wet.

Bailey picked up a board decimated by termites from a porch next to a house where as a child he listened to radio addresses from President Franklin Roosevelt. He tossed the wood aside.

“You reach a certain point,” he said. “A tipping point.”