New hope for old homes

Wendy Smith
Government/Politics columnist

Last Tuesday was a dark day for historic preservation in Knoxville, but at least it had a silver lining.

The Christenberry House at 3222 Kingston Pike was torn down by new owners John and Paula Chesworth, who say it would’ve been too expensive to restore the home after a decade of neglect. The loss of the 1914 Craftsman leaves a gap in a row of historic homes that includes Crescent Bend, the H.L. Dulin House and Bleak House.

The timing of the destruction was likely chosen to precede City Council’s approval, on second reading, of an ordinance that requires a 60-day waiting period for a demolition permit for historic structures.

The waiting period will give the city and preservation group Knox Heritage the chance to work with owners to find ways to save historic buildings.

Knox Heritage Executive Director Kim Trent recalls that much of the 500 block of Gay Street was scheduled to be demolished for a new movie theater until Mayor Bill Haslam put a 45-day delay on demolition in 2005. During the delay, a design solution was found that saved the historic buildings.

“That block would not look like it does today if we had not been given 45 days,” Trent says.

The goal is for property owners to make money while historic buildings are saved. But solutions can’t be found if there’s no time to talk, she says.

Fortunately, there will now be more time to talk about the Paul Howard House at 2921 N. Broadway. The 1910 Craftsman was home to two city council members, a Knox County trustee and a Knoxville city manager. It has twice been recognized by Knox Heritage for the quality care provided by previous owners Mr. and Mrs. Paul Howard.

A big-box developer has offered the highest price on the home. North Knoxville neighbors have created an online fund drive to raise money to purchase it.

While Trent was heartbroken to see the Christenberry House destroyed, she was delighted by the public outpouring of outrage on Knox Heritage’s website. There’s been a cultural shift in the way the community regards historic properties, she says.

“People are just sick of the destruction.”

The new ordinance was created to catch properties that aren’t protected by a historic or neighborhood conservation overlay, says Kaye Graybeal, historic preservation planner for Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission. Properties that are associated with a significant person or event, or represent a particular type of architecture, or provide historical information, fall into this category.

The Howard House fits nicely into this category. The Christenberry House used to.

The amended city code won’t keep owners from knocking down their historic buildings. But it forces them to take some time to consider whether they want to embrace the community’s current passion for preserving our heritage or go against the flow.

“It was a sad day for Knoxville,” says Second District City Council member Duane Grieve of the day the Christenberry House came down. It was there in the morning and gone by the time he drove home.

Thankfully, the day had a silver lining that might save other historic properties.

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