Some preparatory demolition work began this week on the Nineteenth Century Club building on Union Avenue while local preservationists started a legal fund to help preserve the historic structure.
The property’s current owner, Union Group LLC, acquired a demolition permit Tuesday, July 30, and felled a large tree on the back side of the property.
The demolition permit was issued to B&W Excavating and Trucking. B&W noted on the permit that it was planning for “demo w/excavation & haul debris to landfill.”
The activity caused preservation group Memphis Heritage to post an urgent plea on Facebook for help.
“We are asking everyone to be on watch for the guys cutting down the trees at the 19th Century Club,” reads a Tuesday Facebook post from the group. “They stopped this afternoon. We are asking them to stop cutting the 100 year old oaks until all avenues are exhausted. There are potential purchasers out there that will reconsider if this natural canopy is destroyed.”
The fate of the property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has ignited a long-smoldering debate over the proper design and use of property in the city core, pitting everyone from preservationists to architects and community members against the Union Group, which has said it intends to raze the structure and build a commercial property in its place.
Earlier in July, a clearly disappointed General Sessions Div. 14 Judge Larry Potter said the Union Group could move forward with work on the property, after the company submitted a demolition plan and a possible Chancery Court suit challenging the legitimacy and legality of the sale of the property did not materialize.
Potter had previously prohibited the Union Group from taking any action at the property while attorney Webb Brewer explored allegations made by some Nineteenth Century Club members who protested the sale and believed club members, not just the executive committee, were required to vote on the sale for it to be legal.
Brewer said he and the leadership of the American Institute of Architects Memphis asked state Attorney General Robert E. Cooper Jr. to explore if the sale had somehow violated the Tennessee Nonprofit Corporation Act, which Brewer said requires nonprofits to get the approval of the attorney general before disposing of major assets such as the Nineteenth Century Club building.
Memphis Heritage was seeking donations for a legal fund on its website and Facebook page.
“We are collecting donations for legal expenses to prevent the demolition of the 19th Century Club property,” Memphis Heritage said in a post.
The regal but decaying property on Union was built in 1907 by Rowland Jones, a Memphis lumber king.
In 1926, the 15,813-square-foot house was acquired by the Nineteenth Century Club, a philanthropic women’s organization.
The Union Group acquired the property for $550,000 in January after winning a competitive bidding process, beating out a group that offered $350,000 and wanted to turn the property into a women’s business center.
The Nineteenth Century Club is giving the Children’s Museum of Memphis $550,000 from the sale to help fund new exhibits.