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VOL. 8 | NO. 21 | Saturday, May 16, 2015

Preserving East Tennessee's Endangered Buildings

JOE MORRIS | The Ledger

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When preservation comes up in conversation, it brings to mind crumbling Victorian mansions or maybe an old Woolworth’s sitting idle downtown.

That’s definitely been the case in and around Knoxville, and it’s a mindset that Knox Heritage and the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance (ETPA) are working hard to break.

Todd Morgan, director of preservation field services for ETPA and Knox Heritage, on the steps of the old Tennessee Military Institute in Sweetwater.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

Knox Heritage, which has been around since 1974, has notched many successes over the years, and partners with ETPA as that organization takes preservation to a 16-county area that includes Anderson, Blount, Campbell, Claiborne, Cocke, Grainger, Hamblen, Jefferson, Knox, Loudon, Monroe, Morgan, Roane, Scott, Sevier and Union counties.

The two organizations, along with other local and regional preservation entities, work together to compile the annual East Tennessee Endangered 8, a list of threatened historic buildings and sites, in hopes of winning public support – and dollars – to save them.

Knox Heritage will announce its list of endangered buildings and properties in Knoxville and Knox County – the Fragile Fifteen – on May 15.

The tricky part in all this is getting communities to see the value of preservation beyond just saving building, says Todd Morgan, director of preservation field services for ETPA and Knox Heritage.

From tourism to economic development, he points out why keeping a structure around benefits both those who would look back as well as urban planners, developers and others with an eye on the future.

Q: How did the Endangered 8 come into being?

A: “The program has been going for six years, and it highlights endangered properties throughout the East Tennessee region. ETPA was launched in 2009, so that we could broaden our preservation and conservation efforts.

“In the past, we’ve had many different properties on the list, and this year we scaled it back to just eight so we could focus on them more in the coming months.’’

Q: What does a property have to do, be or have to make the list?

A: “They can be architecturally unique, or have a strong tie to the community or many other reasons. We rely on input from the public and our board of directors to help identify properties.

“The ETPA board is composed of people from all 16 counties we cover, and they are our key to what’s going on in those areas. We do look for larger, culturally significant properties, but we also will look at something that’s smaller, but significantly threatened at this moment in time.’’

Q: What has the community response been to the Endangered 8 in years past?

A: “We hear from people all the time wanting to know about a certain property, or wanting us to know about a particular site. We’re raising awareness in the rest of the community, as well as with owners who may be neglectful of the property, or who just don’t know what to do with it.

“We can help them with a business plan if it’s something that can be a tourism site, or something that can be repurposed. We also point people to buyers, and work with them on how to raise money. When a property makes the Endangered 8 list, then it’s in front of community leaders, potential buyers and developers as well, and all that can help transition a building into the right hands.

“We want to save them all.’’

Q: What do your success stories look like?

TMI has been closed since 1988, and its former buildings have been unoccupied since 2007.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

A: “The big wins lately have included the Guest House at Alexander Inn in Oak Ridge. It has become one of our most well recognized saved properties. It was a very complex deal that brought together the U.S. Dept. of Energy, federal historic tax credits and a developer who would transition the building from its existing ownership so that it could be renovated. It’s reopening later this spring, and everyone is really excited about that.

“But we do a lot of things that don’t generate that kind of local or regional public relations, such as the 1939 post office in downtown Lafollette, which has been bought by the city and is now an exhibit space while they decide what to do with it. It’s future is still a bit uncertain, but the community can now get back in there and reconnect with the property.

“We also worked on an old, two-room schoolhouse in Union County. The community really rallied around that, donating material and time to restore it. It just looks great.’’

Q: What about losses?

A: “We haven’t had a direct, complete demolition of a project yet, but we’ve had some that have hung on the list for far too long. One of those is Morristown College in Hamblen County. It has transitioned to new ownership, but under the former owners the buildings were left open to vandalism and there were several fires. Three structures on the campus are gone, including the most prominent building, so now we’re working with the new owners on how to best develop the site and pay homage to its history with the buildings that are left.’’

Q: How did you come to settle on eight?

A: “We wanted sites where we’ve established some groundwork already, and feel good about the direction they’re going in – but we’re not there yet and so they still need attention. We don’t want the work that’s been done in them to fade. We’re very limited in terms of staff, so we really rely on volunteers and others to help us work on these projects, so we wanted to focus on the ones that we really believe can be saved.

“We have to put our energy where we believe we can make a difference, where we can rally community leaders and others behind the properties.’’

Q: Do you get any pushback from developers, or owners who feel like preservation is forcing them to do something they don’t want to do, or that is going to be expensive and cumbersome?

A: “We work very hard to help people understand that preservation isn’t about impeding progress, but is meant to raise awareness. We want to communicate the real value of these exciting assets, and how they are important not just to past history but future use.

Arching wood beams against exposed brick provide an appealing architectural touch to the old Tennessee Military Institute gymnasium.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

“A renovation project, done the right way, can affect local economies with everything from heritage tourism to job creation.

“Revitalized downtowns are great, and there are all kinds of stories out there about how historic preservation in that regard does so much for quality of life, but there’s so much more to it.

“Preservation has a lot of impact on a community. We help property owners, government leaders and others understand that a teardown and rebuild does more than just lose great architecture and a connection to history. If you can take that asset, reuse it, you can have a fantastic building that you could never build from scratch.

“In downtown Murfreesboro there’s a great old church that’s now a bank. They didn’t tear it down; they worked around the configuration to give it a new use. There’s a health club in an old theater in Martin.

“And in Knoxville, we are seeing a lot of work in old schools. We’ve got some that have been, or are being, converted into residential and assisted-living properties.

“People talk about living in the building where they went to school as a kid.

“These can be some of the most difficult projects to make happen, but they are some of the most rewarding.’’

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 57 280 1,209
MORTGAGES 55 244 916
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 8 52 151
BUILDING PERMITS 158 699 2,751
BANKRUPTCIES 37 157 618
BUSINESS LICENSES 12 77 276
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0