Just when it seemed that Knoxville may have gotten past the urge to destroy its history, we had the demolition of the buildings at 1710 and 1712 Walnut Street. As horrible as that was, it may not be the worst of what’s in store. I took a walk into Fort Sanders on Sunday to view the homes which may face the wrong end of the wrecking ball in the very near future.
White Avenue is a tree-lined street just up the hill from Cumberland. Not only is it within site of campus, it is coming in ever closer contact with the University of Tennessee. That, it appears, is the source of the trouble. Jack Neely wrote an excellent article on the topic last June, giving the history of the three homes as well as revealing UT’s plans for a science building. He pointed out the oddity of the fact that UT’s student body hasn’t grown in years, but UT seems determined to continue expanding its footprint, none the less. I would add that a large amount of space on campus is taken by playing and practice fields. One could argue that UT sports have required it to expand into areas once outside its interest. Jack also mentions the fact that large surface parking lots dot the area and could easily hold the buildings in question with no loss to the community.
As I walked into the Fort Sanders’ neighborhood past the mix of beautiful and dilapidated homes we’ve all come to expect there, I was struck anew with the realization that this used to be an elegant part of town. One of the very first suburbs to downtown, it filled with many of Knoxville’s most affluent citizens. I wasn’t certain I would recognize the home’s when I saw them. One in particular was said to be in excellent condition and, indeed, it sparkled like the diamond it is. I knew immediately I’d found the homes in question.
As I stood photographing the front of the house, Christa Owen-Dansereau, co-owner of the home with her husband Rob, graciously stopped to talk for a few minutes before rushing off to take their daughter to an event. She happily agreed to have the house photographed and said she was glad for anyone to spread the news of their dilemma. As she detailed it to me, the home was only purchased after assurances from UT that the university had no design on the property. The couple has lived in the home for ten years and has raised a family, which now includes three children, at that location.
Along the way they have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the home in addition to building all the memories of their children’s early years. It is not their intention to ove from the home they have brought back from near-ruin. They want to see it preserved, but even more basic than that, they want to live in the home. Unfortunately, theUniversity of Tennessee does not have the same interest. The university pictures a science building and lab on that corner and encompassing not only this home, but the two next to it. They’ve spoken to the owners and have made it clear that eminent domain is an option they would exercise, if necessary.
What are the common threads connecting this situation to that of St. Johns? In each case, a powerful institution wishes to have property destroyed. In each case the property in question is an historic building. And removal of the properties in each case necessarily diminishes the communities of which they are a part.
The two institutions each have Jim Haslam as a primary donor. He currently holds the record for the largest donation in the history of the university. I’m not suggesting he has anything to do with the issue on White Avenue, but simply that each of these institutions are backed with Haslam money.
But there is a difference and the difference is instructive. In the case of St. John’s, they owned the properties they ultimately demolished. When pressed on the point that the community would be harmed, they fell back on the argument that property rights give the owner the prerogative to do as they wish with what they own. In the case at 1302 White Avenue, as well as the other two homes in question, the institution wanting to demolish the homes does not own them. In this case they insist that the greater good is served by removing the property from the owners against their will and destroying the property.
So which is it? Does an owner have the right to control their property or does an institution have the right to over ride property rights? It appears that institutions win, regardless. Property rights are important unless they run counter to the desire of the powerful institution. Community interests are important, but only if they suit the needsof the institution. Churches, hospitals and, far beyond them all, the University of Tennessee, do as they please in our city and often what pleases them is the destruction of property they deem inconvenient. Is anyone willing to stand up to them? Can anyone succeed in doing so?
I asked Christa what hope there can be when the university has the power to simply force the property owners out and when the state has given approval to demolition should UT decide it is necessary. She seemed a bit vague as she answered, almost as if attempting to convince herself. She noted that a meeting to discuss options will happen in her home today. Mayor Burchett and Mayor Rogero will attend the meeting and she thinks they are both sympathetic.
So, there you have it: property rights matter when it’s convenient for the institution and not so much when it’s inconvenient. Power and money win. Is there anything we can do to help stop this sudden demolition trend? Will you call it like it is when it involves your university? Where are the property rights people on this one? The Knox Heritage Facebook page has an entry dated September 20 that says to watch that space this week for an announcement of what we can do. I hope this campaign is more successful than the last.