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VOL. 128 | NO. 171 | Monday, September 2, 2013

Court Case Shows Time’s Effect on Nineteenth Century Club

By Bill Dries

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There was a time when the outgoing president of the Nineteenth Century Club got a silver tea service at the end of her tenure.

The week in court for all sides in the Nineteenth Century Club Chancery Court case shows the decline of an organization as well as the old mansion it has called home for much of its existence.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

That time lasted into the mid-1990s, when the custom became too expensive for a philanthropic organization whose membership had dwindled.

The club was an incubator for local civic efforts before the term incubator was used for such efforts. The group was behind the Red Cross’ arrival in Memphis, the city’s first public playground and similar charitable and philanthropic efforts.

And for most of its existence, a mansion on Union Avenue in Midtown built by a millionaire lumberman was home to the Nineteenth Century Club.

In a week’s worth of testimony in Shelby County Chancery Court last week, former and current members of the club distinguished between the organization and the building it called home for most of the 20th century and the first 12 years of the 21st century.

“The club is not the building, and the building is not the club,” Nancy Walker, one of the plaintiffs, said in an excerpt from a deposition read in court Friday, Aug. 29, the final day of testimony. “But one without the other is not much good.”

Chancellor Walter Evans is to decide the validity of the club’s October vote to sell the house to Union Group LLC for more than $500,000. Union Group is a family-owned company that wants to demolish the mansion and build a restaurant on the land.

The condition of the mansion started to slip in the 1960s, according to Lynn Heathcott, the president of the club since 2007. That’s when problems with the mansion’s roof prompted a change from tile to a more conventional roof. The roof didn’t match the “Chicago-style” gutter system, and because of that, the wood began to rot and other leaks began.

The club, however, still had the membership to do its philanthropic work and maintain the house.

But the neglect that built up in recent years as membership dwindled came to a head in 2001, when local code enforcement officials presented club leaders with “several pages of violations,” Heathcott said. The 2001 violations also triggered quarterly visits by code enforcement inspectors.

“It was impossible,” she said. “No one had the money to do that except a little bit at a time.”

Heathcott has remained president since 2007 because “no one would accept the job,” she testified. “We have tried a number of times to get people to step up.”

The club raised $35,000 for a new furnace. Chandeliers were rewired, and the practice by some members of sending household items they no longer wanted to the mansion ended.

“We continually tried to do things,” Heathcott testified. “It never seemed to get us to a situation where we didn’t have to deal with code enforcement.”

Then in 2010, code enforcement summoned the club to General Sessions Environmental Court as a “neglected property,” requiring appearances and updates every six weeks instead of once every three months. The court action forced the club to get an estimate for how much it would cost to fix everything in the building.

The total came in at $2.6 million, an amount Heathcott described as “frightening” and “overwhelming” for a group that then numbered about 20 active dues-paying members. Just fixing the roof and sealing the exterior was $800,000 to $900,000, and members who had been considering a capital campaign to raise money tabled the idea after getting the cost estimate.

“We just didn’t feel like we had the energy to take it on,” Heathcott said. “Then we had to face the really hard decision. It was almost like the nail in the coffin when we got the summons.”

Paying dues is an integral part of the court fight that Evans is to decide. Past members who became inactive – some of them lifetime members – are among the plaintiffs seeking to void the sale.

But attorneys for the club and the Children’s Museum of Memphis, to which the club donated most of the money from the sale, argue that in the last 12 years the organization has gone from a for-profit corporation to a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization and is a different organization legally with a different set of bylaws.

Those new bylaws require members in good standing to pay dues even if they were lifetime members, such as Teresa Hurst, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. She was the second former president of the club to get a lifetime membership instead of a silver tea service.

Hurst, an attorney, argued that her lifetime membership gives her a property interest – a legal term with a specific meaning – that should have meant she got a notice of the club’s October 2010 vote to sell the mansion.

“I didn’t think the members and myself had been treated fairly,” Hurst testified. “I want a revote on the issue.”

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