The wheels were probably set into motion years ago. The chain of events that would make this weekend inevitable might be traced to the purchase of the entire downtown block bounded by Walnut, Cumberland, Market and Church. Most of it is already covered in pavement, stripes crossing the places where buildings used to be. Where people lived and worked and went about their daily business. Fewer buildings survive on that block today than did so on Friday.
Perhaps the wheels were set in motion when Jim Haslam became angry over Knox Heritage’ resistance to a demolition at Cherokee Country Club about which he felt they had no business. Maybe two hundred-year-old buildings simply became his best way to show he could do what he pleases in this town. Stacy Diamond, a friend in the city, wondered if perhaps the current legal trouble surrounded Pilot Oil isn’t somehow related. After all, the same arrogance and greed that cheats small companies of millions of dollars could be seen at play when Jim Haslam declared he would tear down those buildings if he chose to do so.
Maybe the wheels were set in motion when St. John’s Episcopal Church decided that his money was so valuable they would simply have to do his bidding. That first moment when the text the church purports to follow was abandoned to follow the money. That first time they reasoned that, pragmatically, the greater good is served by following the bidding of your biggest donor.
Regardless of when it started, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: This one is entirely on St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral. Over the weekend, as the bricks began to fall, there was some chatter on social media that indicated perhaps there was blame to be spread here or that it didn’t really rest on the church as a whole, but rather on their leadership. I strongly feel that these assertions are entirely false.
As for the idea that others were somehow to blame, that if only some outside group or groups had done more this could have been averted I say, “tell me what more could have been done and why didn’t you do it?” Knox Heritage and David Dewhirst offered this church every possible way to avoid this demolition. Mr. Dewhirst offered to buy the buildings, to renovate the buildings at his own expense and to lease the buildings. The church didn’t even seriously consider the offers. Knox Heritage tried to offer the church the opportunity to do the right thing, but the leadership refused.
The Downtown Design Review Board which first heard the request for demolition turned it down. The basis was the fact that the church had offered no plan for use for the space. The church had only said the buildings would be torn down to make way for a future use, which might not come for years. They then produced a design for a courtyard and said that’s what they would do with the space. Later they said they needed additional parking. By the time their appeal arrived at the Metropolitan Planning Commission, they claimed they needed the space for a drop-off for their elderly parishioners. It became unclear which of the above were lies told by the church and which one was true.
The Metropolitan Planning Commission had no legal basis to deny the appeal. There is no ordinance or code that prevents a downtown property owner from destroying their property if they choose to do so. Only an historical designation could do so and none had been pursued as the property owner in such a situation must be in agreement. It was left at that point to the good will of the church to make the right decision.
And why should the “right” decision be to leave the building standing? Because it is to the greater good of the community in which they reside. They do not exist in suburb. The exist in an urban area that is trying very hard to return to viability. An urban area that needs desperately to hold on to the buildings it has in order to attract the residents and businesses that will sustain it. Did Saint Johns not understand that its community desired to keep these buildings? Absolutely not.
Protests were held outside the church on two consecutive Sunday mornings. A modicum of inquisitiveness on the part of any parishioner would have revealed the reason for the protests. These actions were covered on local news outlets including channel 6, the Knoxville News Sentinel and prominently by Metro Pulse. Andrea Monk, a downtown resident, started a petition which garnered over 500 signatures. She delivered it personally. I wrote an open letter to the church, published it here, and e-mailed it to everyone listed on the church website. Clearly, the church knew how the community felt, but did not care.
So, the church made an informed choice. It chose power and greed. It chose money. It did not demonstrate any amount of care for its neighbors, but rather chose high-handed disdain for them. Clearly, despite their apparent pride in their historic building they do not understand or value preservation. They choose to worship at the altar of the automobile to the point that they will not have their parishioners walk ten feet from the street or park on the next block. They do not understand that they are a part of an urban community and that both those words mean something.
Finally, the idea was float in social media this weekend that they should not be blamed any more than the other various institutions which have knocked down historic buildings inside the city. Clearly, banks, the local government and other entities, as well as other churches have similarly demonstrated ignorance on this issue. This in no way changes the current discussion. Guilt is not ameliorated by virtue of the fact that one shares the guilt. Even more damning is that our decisions are necessarily informed by the era in which we make them. While destroying older buildings might have been frowned upon by some in the 1970s, in 2013 it is impossible to ignore the implications of such a decision. Ignorance is no longer possible.
So what happens now? Do we forgive and forget? Clearly, all organizations from churches to Knox Heritage want to benefit from the Haslam fortune, so do they act as if this never happened? I don’t think so. I think this may be a turning point for local preservation efforts and I hope to see a push for a ban on demolitions inside the city. I also feel that St. John’s has sealed its fate. While there was already a good chance the church would die as its rapidly aging parishioners die, now I feel it is a near certainty. Its opportunity to have a vibrant congregation in the future rests downtown with the new residents pouring in steadily. They have poisoned that well. The bitterness they have sown will seal their doom.