I’ve dreaded this moment for well over a year. It was over a year ago that St. John’s Episcopal Church submitted a request to the Downtown Design Review Board for permission to demolish two buildings they own at 710 and 712 Walnut Street. Delays followed while Knox Heritage, with the help of David Dewhirst, attempted to convince the leaders of the church that alternatives might work just as well.
David Dewhirst offered to purchase the buildings. The church leaders rejected the offer. He then offered to rehabilitate and renovate them at his own expense in which case he would then lease them from the church. The church leaders rejected the offer. Numerous suggestions were made for uses of the buildings which would benefit the church. Every suggestion was rejected.
Ultimately, the Downtown Design Review Board denied the request, but this only delayed the inevitable. The church appealed the ruling to the Metropolitan Planning Commission and, in the absence of any legal reason to stop them, the MPC granted permission for the demolition. This week the church pulled their permit for demolition. They need do nothing more than proceed with the destruction of these two ninety-year-old buildings.
And so, here is my letter to the church:
Dear St. John’s Episcopal Church,
I am very sorry to understand that you plan to destroy two buildings which have been given for your care. I realize you paid for them, but surely you feel all gifts are from God. No doubt you understand that we are caretakers for all the possessions with which we are blessed. Nothing is ours forever. It belongs to something much larger than ourselves.
I honestly thought that Knoxville had begun to move beyond the destruction of our venerable buildings. Given the buildings that have been saved in recent years and turned into vibrant, contributing parcels of our community, I couldn’t imagine that anyone would consider destruction of any more of this finite resource. So many of us travel to Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans and other cities because of their beautiful old buildings that it would seem irrational to tear down our own.
The discussion of the potential demolition of the buildings at 710 and 712 Walnut have been filled with irony. You reside in an historic building, your web site refers to the beauty of its structure, yet you wish to tear others down. You once owned other buildings on your block – the Cherokee, the Ely and the Cate, which you intended to destroy for more parking. These are now filled with residents and contribute to our Knoxville tax rolls because you sold them to people who could see their potential, yet your attorney used them as an argument for allowing you to tear down the two buildings in question.
It is also ironic that many of your members are also members of and supporters of Knox Heritage. Some are currently working on the campaign to renovate Historic Westwood. It appears that these individuals support preserving buildings when it is convenient or when it doesn’t run counter to their own desires. Preservation is good for others, but not so much for them.
Jack Neely in his excellent article on the topic points to a much darker force at work. It appears some people including “a well-known octogenarian,” reasonably assumed around town to be Jim Haslam remain angry about past preservation fights, particularly one involving Cherokee Country Club. If true, this suggests that spite, anger and revenge are part of the reason for the destruction of the buildings. Do you wish for your actions to be dictated by spite, anger and revenge? Is this consistent with the gospel you purport to follow?
Also relevant to this situation is the simple edict to love your neighbor as you love yourself. If we accept that there is good reason that would benefit your group to have those buildings removed, but we also accept that this angers, disappoints and saddens your neighbors, what would be the proper Christian response? Didn’t St. Paul discuss taking care not to offend others? Didn’t Jesus suggest that suffering for the sake of others is a higher good?
Assuming these moral arguments fall on deaf ears, I would appeal to the pragmatists among you. You are a downtown church attempting to replicate your cohorts in the suburbs. Your attorney, Arthur Seymour, said in his statements to the MPC that you should have the same right to parking as a west Knoxville Church. He is wrong. You are not a suburban church. Much as all the other churches downtown manage in an urban environment, you must do the same if you are to remain.
Finally, I give you a prediction of your future: Your membership at this time largely drives in from outside the downtown area. Many of them do so out of devotion stemming from attendance there many decades ago. This will not continue to be so. As your aging parishioners leave this earth, who will fill their pews? Who will fill your coffers? Can you realistically expect your next generation will come from the suburbs? They will not do so no matter how many buildings you destroy to make parking for their automobiles.
But I am not predicting your necessary extinction as a congregation. You have a “field that is ripe unto the harvest,” growing all around you. It is downtown residents. Thousands live here now and thousands more will move to the center city in the coming decade. These residents represent your chance for survival. So, how will you reach them? By making them angry by destroying a piece of their community?
Make no mistake: this is not the 1970’s or even the 1980’s. Your church and others destroyed buildings for parking lots in previous decades and hardly anyone harbors resentment, because the times were different. You didn’t know better and neither did most others. Then, few people considered downtown to be their neighborhood. Today is very different. If you destroy these buildings it will not be forgotten by your neighbors. You will undermine your long term capacity for growth and potentially for survival itself by pursuing a short-term goal.
There is still time for you to do the right thing, for you to love your neighbors as yourselves and to build a connection between you and your community. It is not too late for you to announce that despite the fact that you have the legal right to destroy these buildings, a faith community is not built on legalities. That despite the fact it would be more convenient for you to destroy these buildings, you love your community more than yourself. You have the chance to say to your friends downtown that revenge, anger and false pride have no place in a house of God.
Announce that you have listened. Tell the city that you have heard their pleas. Tell them that you will not arrogantly cling to the law. It’s the right thing to do, but is also the single thing you can do in this situation to make your survival as a congregation a possibility in the coming decades.
Knoxville Urban Guy
To everyone else: If you feel the church should save these buildings, please act quickly. Sign the petition, write a letter to the church, send an email, call the church at 525-7347. Write a letter to the Knoxville News Sentinel, to Metropulse. Send this link to St. John’s members. These buildings could disappear any day now.