Three 1890s Victorian houses are likely to fall due to the University of Tennessee’s plans to build a classroom and laboratory building on White Avenue in Fort Sanders. The houses are in relatively good shape, for 120-year-old wooden houses, and pretty. All have been recently lived in; one was owner-occupied and recently renovated. Each was once the home of someone famous and influential, whose impact on the city, and the university, is still felt more than a century later.
The houses are within a boundary of the NC-1 conservation district established by City Council and the Metropolitan Planning Commission 15 years ago, intended to provide a layer of oversight to protect the neighborhood’s best historic architecture. By NC-1 zoning, before a contributing historic building can be demolished, a developer would have to state the case for demolition before public boards, the Historic Zoning Commission and the MPC. However, UT, being a state institution, can override city wishes and policies, and is doing so in this case.
It’s been known for more than a year that UT wanted the houses gone. But it was just last month, May 19, that UT surprised the preservation community by asking for bids from parties willing and able to move the houses quickly. The bid process was open for only 13 days, at the end of which the winning bidder must remove the purchased house, by the beginning of July. Only one responded during that window. Preservationist developer Carl Lansden bought two of the houses. He is known for some renovations in the Fourth and Gill area, and has won a Knox Heritage award for one of those renovations, but he’s never moved a house before. He has found a lot for one, nearby on Clinch, and is working against time to find a lot for the other.
“It’s purely speculative on my part,” Lansden says. “There’s no way I could stomach UT demolishing those houses.”
Knox Heritage Executive Director Kim Trent calls moving a house “a last resort.” Even if this move is successful, Trent worries about the precedent UT is setting. “Now everybody else is going to say, ‘Just move it.’”
Any moved house loses whatever National Register of Historic Places status it might have had, and has to start over. The three houses on White are eligible for the National Register now, but if moved, would not be eligible again until 2065. Each house also loses its context, its part in the narrative of the place it sits. Context, especially in regard to UT history, is relevant to these houses’ stories. (See sidebar.)
The last time UT sold a historic house to be moved, it was the large brick Keller house on Cumberland Avenue, in 2002. After months of work, the project was deemed impossible due to some logistics concerning telephone poles. The house was demolished.
But, Trent says, even if it’s a poor second choice, moving a house is better than demolition. She says she’s been working with multiple parties to try to find places for the houses.
“I wish they had more broadly advertised the moving option, and given more than 13 days for people to respond,” she says.
UT Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Chris Cimino says that’s a typical bid period, and that he first approached Knox Heritage about UT’s determination that the houses be moved in April 2014.
Trent acknowledges Cimino discussed the moving mandate with her last year. She says she has been meeting with realtors, prospective purchasers, and city officials about finding a place for all three houses, and had invested $1,300 in an appraisal of a prospective lot for the houses. She had recently been hopeful about placing them together on a surface parking lot. But moving a house is a process that often takes multiple cooperative parties and months of study. When the bid window closed, she was still waiting to hear about a prospective destination for one or more houses.
Trent says she hadn’t heard mention of a deadline until she got an email about the beginning of the 13-day process on May 19. Kaye Graybeal, primary historic-preservation planner for the MPC, says she was startled at the suddenness of UT’s announcement, too.
Even if the houses weren’t historic, there remains a question of why UT wanted this particular spot, considering it’s much more expensive than other plots of similar acreage nearby. The Owen-Danserau family bought the house at 1302 White in 1996 for a reported $188,000. UT bought the same property 19 years later for $1.1 million, about six times as much as the Owens paid for it. The difference at least partly reflects the fact that the Owens did extensive renovations to the house, which some members of the family occupied, with long-range plans to make it a bed and breakfast.
UT paid $1 million for 1308 White, and $515,000 for 1312 White, for a total of $2.6 million for the three properties. Much of that value reflects the preserved historic houses, which will be removed or demolished. A nearby surface parking lot at Clinch Avenue and James Agee (formerly 15th) Street, offering a little more property, was recently appraised for about a third of that total. Being flat, unlike the steeply sloping site of the three houses, would seem much easier to build on—and with no grief from preservationists.
Cimino says UT considered several options—including a four-block area farther to the north—but not that particular parking lot. He emphasizes that the new building will include nutrition studies, and they wanted it to be near the Jessie Harris building, which is across 13th Street to the east.
To Knox Heritage, the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association, and several former city leaders, the development is disheartening especially in light of the fact that an extraordinary and inclusive two-year process, 15 years ago, seemed a major step in solving the Fort Sanders problem. The Fort Sanders Forum recommended saving some houses to form a core neighborhood conservation district (NC-1) in which removal of historic houses would have to be discussed and approved by the Historic Zoning Commission.
That Forum was an initiative of the Mayor Victor Ashe administration, and included several major stakeholders, including both Fort Sanders and Children’s hospitals, and architectural, real estate, and technical experts, as well as UT. Their work resulted in drawing a line around the historic houses deemed to be important to the neighborhood’s historic integrity.
UT professor Jon Coddington took a leading role in the process as one of three facilitators, along with community mediator John Doggette (now executive director of Community Mediation Services of St. Louis) and John Leith-Tetrault, a well known figure nationally for his leadership in the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Though Coddington facilitated the meetings, UT’s official representative was Phil Scheurer, UT senior vice chancellor for business and finance. Scheurer had suffered a Darth Vader-like reputation among preservationists in the late 20th century, but he seemed to undergo a conversion of sorts, and told Ellen Adcock, Ashe’s director of administration, “I learned a lot.” Former UT President Joe Johnson attended some of the meetings and assured the group that UT had no further expansion plans to the north. Architecture professor Marleen Davis was involved, too, and helped draw up a new UT master plan that respected the neighborhood boundaries.
“I thought we had an agreement,” Adcock says. They took the plan, with the White Avenue houses included within the conservation district, to City Council, which met in Fort Sanders to approve it. MPC also approved the recommendations of the Fort Sanders Forum in 2000.
However, the administration and the facilitators did not demand that all parties sign the document. “I kept asking if there were any changes, and everyone seemed to approve it. I have to say that when this started up, two or three years ago, I was so disappointed I just wanted to scream,” Adcock says.
Ashe grew up near UT, on Melrose Avenue, in a house that now serves as the Baptist student center; the houses around it have long since been torn down.
“I can’t think of any single entity that has done more damage to historic homes than our alma mater, the University of Tennessee,” says the former mayor and U.S. ambassador. “I regret saying it, but UT has an abysmal record when it comes to historic preservation.”
Architect Randall DeFord, then leader of the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association, still lives and works in a renovated historic house in Fort Sanders. He says UT’s current leadership has told him that because there’s no formal contract, UT has no obligation to abide by the terms of the Fort Sanders Forum. Fifteen years may not seem a long time in the history of a 221-year-old institution, but UT has had several presidential turnovers since then.
“It says to me that the leaders of UT lack integrity,” says DeFord. “That they’d string us along for 18 months or two years,” with day-long meetings and complex negotiations. “If you’re just going to ignore it, there’s no reason to have a public planning process.”
Cimino has been a vice chancellor since 2009, the same year Jimmy Cheek, who did not live in Tennessee during the Fort Sanders Forum era, took the reins as chancellor.
Cimino has heard people talk about the Forum, but seems unfamiliar with its particulars. He says “we’ve found nothing in writing, with signatures” concerning UT’s agreement not to bother the White Avenue houses.
“I’ve never known the university to take a position that we would ever say never, this block or that block,” Cimino says.
The fact that UT is expanding its territory may be surprising in light of some basic numbers. Total enrollment at UT is considerably smaller than what it was 35 or 40 years ago. UT now has about 27,000 students; in the 1970s, the figure was reported to be 35,000, with some estimates well north of that. Through expansions on its edges, UT has already become a larger campus serving fewer students.
Cimino says those old numbers may partly reflect evening and weekend classes, which are no longer a priority. Increased parking acreage is another factor. In any case, this expansion, he says, is a response to a study suggesting a specific “deficit” of 800,000 square feet of classroom and lab space for the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines. Those disciplines are concentrated in the Hill area, and the Hill is pretty crowded with buildings. Cimino says they considered adding one more, and decided against it.
Chances are, none of the White Avenue houses will see the end of the summer, at least not on their current property. The Judge’s House, a cause célèbre written about by author Carson Brewer and others 35 years ago, seems destined for demolition. First-time house-mover Carl Lansden has bought the houses at 1302, the Schmitt house, and 1312, the Ferris house (see sidebar). He has found a place for the Schmitt house, at 1601 Clinch Avenue. Whether he’s able to save the Ferris house depends on whether he’s able to find a vacant lot for sale close enough to its 120-year home.
Corrections: Knox Heritage had paid $1,300 for an appraisal of a prospective lot for the houses, not for an appraisal of the houses themselves. Also, according to Victor Ashe, the house he grew up in at 1811 Melrose Ave. is still standing (with major additions), and is currently the Baptist student center.
History Behind the Houses
At issue are three wooden Victorian houses on White Avenue, a block from Cumberland. All three were built in the mid-1890s, all three are in relatively good condition, one of them recently occupied by an owner who occupied it as a family home. Architecturally, they’re good examples of their style, but they may be most remarkable for the people who lived there.
1302, sometimes known as “Three Chimneys,” was built for the Cooper Schmitt family, who occupied it for more than 20 years. Schmitt was a prominent UT academic, a math professor who became dean of students in 1907. A sports fan and UT’s chairman of the Athletics Department, Schmitt founded UT’s first Athletic Association, just when the football team was new to campus.
After he collapsed in a lecture hall on the Hill in 1910, Schmitt was carried to his home, where he died. Few professors have ever been eulogized quite as extravagantly as Schmitt, remembered with a marble plaque in the Austin Peay Building, which was, for many years, UT’s main administration building: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
However, his son Bernadotte, who grew up in the house at 1302 and lived there for some years after his father’s death, became more globally famous than his father. He became UT’s first Rhodes scholar and author of a landmark book about World War I, The Coming of War, 1914, Bernadotte Schmitt won the Pulitzer Prize. For the rest of his life, he would give talks about his first news of the war, which arrived with a thud on that same front porch, in the summer of 1914.
The house in the middle, known as the Judge’s House, was the subject of a popular and successful preservation effort, 35 years ago. It was first home of marble magnate James Ross, then of progressive politician James Maynard Jr.; grandson of the maverick Civil War politician who was the district’s first Republican Congressman, Maynard died suddenly in the house in 1917. Later still, for a quarter century, the home of Judge Charles Hayes Brown, who was Knoxville Chancellor in the 1920s, hence the name.
The third house, at 1312 White, was for a decade the home of engineering professor Charles Ferris (1864-1951). He was a respected scholarly author, though Elements of Descriptive Geometry (1904) probably didn’t have quite the drawing power of The Coming of War. He’s more often remembered as UT’s first dean of the College of Engineering, and is the namesake of the 1930 Ferris Hall on the Hill. He was one of the early leaders of UT’s alumni giving programs, and later on, even as an old man, led engineer training programs for the new Tennessee Valley Authority.
What may be less known is that beginning in 1912, when he lived in this house, Ferris led the charge to get UT to establish a “modern athletic field,” at a time when UT’s football field was bare, rocky, and even a little hilly. Ferris’ efforts culminated in UT’s acquiring the land where Neyland Stadium was eventually built. Ferris is also credited as the man who insisted, despite the university’s fiscal pragmatism, that Ayres Hall should be more than another practical academic building, and should have an impressive tower. Ferris could see it from his back door.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.
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