It was a long night for the Clarksville City Council on Thursday, Oct. 3, as the body was tasked with a difficult decision of whether to overturn a ruling made by the Regional Historic Zoning Commission that denied a demolition request.
Shortly after 11 p.m., city leaders sided with the developer in a 9-1 vote, with three abstentions, to allow the building’s owner to take down the historic structure.
At stake was the preservation of an historic church building that was constructed in 1831 as the meeting place of the Methodist Church. It later became the home of the Cumberland Presbyterian congregation.
The building, located on the corner of Fourth and Main streets in downtown Clarksville, has since been used for boarders for more than 130 years. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Historians believe the structure was used as a hospital and horse stable by both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War.
The Regional Historic Zoning Commission, which is responsible for preserving and protecting the historic and/or architectural value of the structures within the Main Street historic district, voted in August to deny developer Robert E. White’s application for a permit to demolish the structure.
White purchased the building in January of 2018 with hopes, he said, of restoring it.
However, White, with advice from professional engineers, has since decided the building is in a state of disrepair.
“I knew it was in bad shape,” White told council members on Thursday. “I took the gamble and it’s my fault. If there was an easy way to fix it, I would do it…It’s not worth putting another penny in it and I’m not going to put another penny in it.”
According to Brent Clemmons, the design review coordinator for the Regional Historic Zoning Commission, the panel felt preservation should be the priority for the building.
Clemmons said architect Roger Matchett felt the building could be reconstructed and placed into a stable structure from the ground to the roof, which is a practice that is very common in historic circles.
“Essentially, you could take it down by hand,” Clemmons said. “Then you would need to re-lay it by hand.”
The architect estimated the cost of the basic stabilization to be upwards of $255,000. That figure does not include any interior repairs, but merely the shell of the building.
When it came down to council members’ comments during the evidentiary stage of the appeal, several members emphasized safety and liability concerns regarding the existing building. They also questioned the cost of bringing the structure up to the same historical value it now holds.
Council member Valerie Guzman said she feels the building may have already lost its historical value.
“The brick is all that’s left of the building’s real history,” Guzman said. “Inside, it looks all new. It has lost its ‘1831.’ It lost it 100 years ago.”
Guzman suggested doing something amazing with the brick itself.
Council member Jeff Burkhart wondered about the responsibility of the city if the structure were to fall and injure or kill anyone following the city’s ruling.
City Attorney Baker assured the council the city and the historic commission would be immune from liability per the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, which provides, under state law, immunity for the city from all suits arising out of their activities.
Regional Planning Commission Director Jeff Tyndall, who addressed the board on behalf of the Historic Zoning Commission, said when dealing with structures more than 170 years old the decisions to preserve or demolish them should not be taken lightly.
“The question before you tonight is not an easy one,” Tyndall said. “It’s hard to put a price on a building or bricks.”
During the city’s deliberation phase of the proceedings, Councilman Richard Garrett made a motion to overturn the decision of the Regional Historic Zoning Commission that denied White’s application for a demolition permit.
Councilman Tim Chandler said he felt the zoning committee members were chosen for the board due to their expertise.
“I’m being asked to override their expertise,” Chandler said.
Chandler also said he was concerned that White did not heed the warning of the condition of the building some seven months prior to his purchase of it.
“If we approve this, there’s no turning back,” Chandler added. “There’s got to be some consideration to the historical value of this.”
Burkhart told his fellow council members that he would vote in favor of overturning the ruling due to safety concerns.
Councilman David Allen said he did not feel it would be economically feasible to preserve the building.
Councilman Ron Erb said he felt the safety should be the number one priority with the council.
Guzman said she was concerned what would become of the building left standing in its current condition if the city upheld the commission’s ruling denying White’s ability to demolish the structure.
Guzman said she fears homeless people could be inside it if, and when, it falls.
“Someone will be hurt and it won’t be someone anyone remembers,” Guzman said. “Then all we’ll have is bricks that didn’t mean anything to anybody.”
After two hours of proceedings, the council voted to overturn the commission’s ruling.
Councilman Chandler voted no while Council members Vondell Richmond, Gary Norris and Wanda Smith abstained.