A Shelby County Chancery Court Judge has issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the owners of the historic Nineteenth Century Club building on Union Avenue from doing any work on the property for 10 days.
Chancery Court Judge Walter Evans issued the order Thursday, July 1, after two current and former members of the club filed suit over the sale of the property, saying it didn’t abide by the club’s guidelines or the Tennessee Nonprofit Corporation Act.
Nineteenth Century Club
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
The current and former members are represented by attorney Webb Brewer, who said the club’s bylaws required all club members – not just the organization’s leadership - to vote on the sale and the state act requires nonprofits disposing of major assets to get approval from the state Attorney General.
“We feel pretty confident that the law will support our position that the act of the leadership consummating that sale was not authorized by law and voidable,” said Brewer. “The law, in my view, is as clear as it can be that all of the membership would have to get notice of the sale and vote on that.”
The legal maneuvers came after the property’s current owner, Union Group LLC, acquired a demolition permit from the Office of Construction Code Enforcement 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.”
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.
There was no activity inside or outside the building Thursday morning.
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 the 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 Brewer explored the sale.
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 temporary restraining order issued by Evans was contingent on the plaintiffs posting a bond of $650,000 after 10 days. The bond is designed to prevent the defendants from suffering a major loss.
Brewer said he was exploring petitioning Chancery Court to have the proceeds from the sale placed with the court, which he said would help lower the plaintiffs’ bond amount.
The Nineteenth Century Club planned on donating all proceeds from the sale to the Children’s Museum of Memphis.