A House And A City Council At Odds With History, Part II

“We’re completely outraged…”

It was the summer of 1992. For Midtowners who had quietly filed out of council chambers after a July 28 meeting at City Hall, it would turn out to be a long summer and fall that would carry over into a still longer – and controversial – winter and spring of discontent that made headlines for the better part of a year.

Central Gardens’ historic district application had just been denied in a City Council vote. In falling one vote short of the seven needed for approval, residents were dejected. Others were stunned. Some were outraged. Of particular concern was the attitudes expressed by some on the council who mentioned revamping the Memphis Landmarks Commission because in their opinion it was “dominated by historic preservation purists impeding redevelopment of historic districts.”

Worse, fears circulated that some council members wanted to see the landmarks commission abolished altogether.

The Commercial Appeal’s coverage in 1992

At stake was the neighborhood’s long-held desire to become a historic conservation district, a designation that would protect the area’s historic homes from inappropriate renovations or home additions. The status as a local landmarks district, with legislative protections from the Memphis Landmarks Commission, would also protect the neighborhood’s homes from outright demolitions like the rather appalling one they had witnessed a year and a half earlier.

The razing of the Norfleet-Fuller Mansion, the 1910 house at 1585 Central Avenue that William T. Fuller had torn down – out of apathy or spite – in December of 1990, still haunted area residents. Driving past the property on Central, they were reminded of it daily; its 2.8 acres on the south side of the avenue still sitting empty amidst the grove of tall trees now missing the three stories of stucco and history of its former, eighty-year-old resident. The property sat vacant for another eleven years, before Mr. Fuller finally sold the land to James ‘Bubba’ Shepherd’s Shepherd Construction Co. Inc. for $500,000 in 2001.

At the time of the demolition in 1990 the neighborhood association was already almost a year into the work needed to gain historic zoning protections. By the spring of 1992, the neighborhood had invested two and a half years, over $3,000, and thousands of hours of volunteer efforts.

In April of ’92 Central Gardens’ historic conservation district application was approved by the Memphis Landmarks Commission; two months later in June, it was approved by the Land Use Control Board. Most residents were cautiously confident in passing the final hurdle with a City Council vote, to be held July 28.

A Missing Vote, and A Hold

However, as the votes were tallied and approval came up one vote short, the stunned and outraged Midtown crowd who had made their way to council chambers wondered, “Where was that one vote?”

As it turned out, that one vote had been too late. As reported by The Commercial Appeal:

A measure that would have made the Midtown neighborhood the largest historic district in Memphis fell one vote short of the seven required for approval Tuesday. Councilman Kenneth Whalum said he registered his yes vote too late.

Unless the vote is reconsidered at Tuesday’s council meeting, the neighborhood’s 2 1/2-year drive to become a local historic district will be defeated. Residents have spent more than $3,000 and thousands of volunteer hours pushing the measure they believe will protect architectural purity and real estate values…

”We’re completely outraged,” said Mark Vorder-Bruegge, who led the 1,600-household group’s effort to become a historic district. ”This is a self-help measure that wouldn’t cost the city anything.”

As it stood, having fallen one vote short of approval, the neighborhood would have to wait a mandatory 18 months to start the process anew and re-apply for historic status. However with the July 28 vote tally being disputed, the neighborhood had an option to ask council to reconsider the vote, and they quickly regrouped in effort to sway the council.

It was a move that would not overturn the results of the vote, nor was it designed to; rather in having council reconsider, Central Gardens was able to ask that their pending application be put on hold for 12 weeks rather than face outright rejection and a delay of a year and a half.

On August 4, just one week later and after vigorous lobbying, nearly 200 citizens jammed council chambers to show support for the neighborhood’s request for a hold. Councilman Tom Marshall, who had registered one of the two no-votes, had the authority to follow the neighborhood’s request and bring the measure back up on condition it would then be delayed.

“I’m trying to meet you halfway,” Marshall told members of the jammed-packed audience.

He did. And the council voted unanimously in favor of the putting the landmark application on hold until late October.

It was but a small, temporary victory that gave the neighborhood something to fight for, and ruminate over, during the next ten exhausting and frustrating months.

“We’ve really got a fight on our hands now…”

Meanwhile, the City Council followed through on a vote to investigate the Landmarks Commission and determine if it should be revamped or its authority weakened to favor more area development.

It was a debate that directly echoes this month’s struggles by the Cooper-Young neighborhood to become a local historic district, the argument against historic preservation that was as old as the preservation movement itself – that historic landmarking of whole districts is an obstacle to growth and development.

“I think they all (developers) would still like to get us out of their way,” Landmarks commission member Jack Tucker Jr. said in 1992.

Though it had played out with the application denial July 28, landmarks commission supporters sensed a storm brewing months earlier. “The commission had drawn fire for being too strict with home designs in a development of up to 200 homes west of Overton Park. Citing those complaints, city officials asked the commission to review its guidelines.” (The Commercial Appeal)

This prompted commission supporters to flex their political muscle by creating a “pro-Landmarks neighborhood coalition called the Historic Districts Alliance. Organizers said they wanted to present a unified front in support of a strong Landmarks Commission and protection of historic neighborhoods.”

The argument repeated in 1992 had been revived back in 1989, “when (councilman) Tom Marshall sponsored an ordinance weakening the Landmarks Commission. Marshall’s architecture firm had been handling a proposed building renovation that ran into problems with the Landmarks Commission. Marshall said he was treated unfairly by Landmarks supporters.” (The Commercial Appeal)

Picking up Marshall’s motion that year, the council voted to weaken the Landmarks Commission, and it provoked a public outcry. “After neighborhood groups rallied in support of Landmarks, the council restored the commission’s powers to oversee building activity in historic districts. The council launched a lengthy study of the commission that ultimately produced no major changes.”

However the 1992 council denial struck residents as particularly discouraging. “Some Landmarks supporters believe the commission faces a tougher road this time because representatives of the (Mayor W. W.) Herenton administration have suggested Landmarks may be hindering development.” (The Commercial Appeal)

After listening to Shep Wilbun and Tom Marshall – the two council members who favored either the revamping or the abolishing of the Landmarks Commission – Midtown landmark supporters were left shaking their heads.

The Commercial Appeal, August 1992:

Landmarks officials were angered and frustrated by the decision to investigate.

Chairman Janis Foster and vice chairman Jack Tucker Jr., whose five-year terms expire Dec. 31, rejected the assertion of some council members that Landmarks doesn’t balance preservation and development interests.

“Here we go again,” Foster said. “There seems to be a lot of misinformation and misperceptions out there. I think if they looked at the real facts of the situation, they’d see that is not true. Frankly, I’m getting tired of being labeled as an extreme preservationist. As chairman, I don’t even have a vote.”

Tucker said, “I think we just have been put in a bad light by a very few developers who have influenced the council and influenced the administration.

“We have no desire to usurp the council’s authority. We just want to preserve the city’s heritage and encourage development.”

Sue Williams, a 1992 member of the Evergreen Historic District Association board and spokesman for the short-lived coalition of historic districts, said at the time that “This is exactly where we were three years ago. It’s time to move forward, not backward.”

Jessica Robinson, 1992 president of the Evergreen neighborhood association, expressed deeper concerns. “We thought we had a fight three years ago,” she said. “We’ve really got a fight on our hands now.”

“…the Landmarks Commission does what it is designed to do”

In early October a special council committee was organized to draft an ordinance designed to address concerns about the Landmarks Commission. Councilman Kenneth Whalum was appointed head of the committee. “It is my intent to hold the meetings with an open mind,” he said. “I want to get to the bottom of what has been a festering problem.”

For six months the committee and the landmarks commission debated in public view and reviewed several proposals, including changes to broaden landmarks’ membership and make its actions appealable without going to court. Also considered were turnovers in upcoming 1993 commission appointments that would radically alter the makeup and decision-making of the board, and a proposal to increase the commission’s size from nine members to twelve that would have violated state landmarks laws.

Through the debates, the October 27 review to reconsider Central Gardens’ landmarks application was delayed and extended into the following year. It was delayed again the first week of January 1993, postponed until the special committee had completed their findings.

Finally, on a Saturday morning, January 16, 1993, Central Gardens residents wary from the delays and debates opened their newspapers and saw the best news they had seen in months.

Don’t sap Landmarks panel, urges study group

The special subcommittee studying the Landmarks Commission decided without a formal vote that only minor changes were needed in commission policies. It recommend that more staff be hired to help the agency do its job.

The decision, which must be adopted by the full City Council, is a major victory for historic preservationists, who feared the panel would recommend gutting the commission in order to make it more friendly to developers.

Councilman Kenneth Whalum, chairman of the special subcommittee and a longtime critic of the Landmarks Committee, conceded that many of the complaints against landmarks came down to “misunderstandings and personality clashes.” With that he referred to some council members and developers who had complained about nitpicking on construction.

“There were a lot of horror stories out there (about the Landmarks Commission),” he said. “But upon closer examination many of these were not what some people would have had us believe.”

Ultimately he sided with the same landmarks supporters he had opposed just months earlier.

“Essentially, the Landmarks Commission does what it is designed to do,” Whalum said. “The mechanics from time to time might get slightly out of whack, but overall it does its job. I don’t think Landmarks has done such a horrible job that it needs . . . to get burned up.”

When all was said and done, after months of back and forth and delays and debates, the committee’s findings determined that the basic duties and responsibilities of the Landmarks Commission remain the same. Commission membership also remained the same.

The two new committee recommendations only strengthened the Landmarks Commission. The first allowed the commission to hire two or more staff members to support the over 2,000 historic structures under landmarks jurisdiction. The second resulted in a rewrite of the commission’s guidelines around renovation and remodeling that helped to further guide property owners in meeting commission standards for construction on historic buildings.

The committee’s recommendations also gave hope to Central Gardens that their historic district application would finally go back before City Council for a final, historic vote.

“Now I’m feeling maybe we’re a little safer.”

But more hurdles were to come, as City Council delayed again a final vote on the neighborhood’s application until it first approved the landmarks changes recommended by the special council committee. It would be the fourth delay over a five-month period for the neighborhood. And the delay came at a price, as the neighborhood lost two more homes to demolition, this time at the hands of Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal School, which tore down two bungalows at 219 and 225 Lemaster to make way for a children’s playground.

Meanwhile, in March of 1993, the squabbles at City Hall continued between City Council and Landmarks supporters over details in the new landmarks proposals. This time the arguments came from council members who insisted that there be an appeals process for adverse landmarks decisions that would allow the unsuccessful applicant to appeal to City Council rather than to go to Chancery Court. Landmarks supporters argued the proposal would weaken the Memphis Landmarks Commission; proponents of the new appeals process said it gave applicants their due process.

John Hopkins, a historic preservation consultant, said that the proposed changes were part of “an ongoing effort by City Council to fix something that’s not broken.” While Councilman Shep Wilbun alleged that allowing appeals to the council was similar to how other land use matters were treated in Memphis. “We do exactly the same thing with zoning cases all the time,” he said.

Weary and ready for the ordinance debates to be behind them, the council voted 10-3 in favor of the changes.

With the vote, landmarks protections for historic neighborhood districts continued by a slightly revamped Landmarks Commission with disputed authority. Moreover, council was now cleared to act on the historic district application that Central Gardens had been seeking for months. The vote was held in City Council chambers on April 20, 1993. And to the delight of many, the approval was unanimous.

“Central Gardens voted historic area” The Commercial Appeal read.

Central Gardens became the city’s ninth and largest historic conservation district Tuesday. By a 10-0 vote, the City Council approved the historic designation, long sought by the Midtown neighborhood.

Approval means some kinds of new construction and demolition in the 1,600- household neighborhood will be regulated by the Memphis Landmarks Commission. The council action ends 10 months of waiting by the Central Gardens Area Association, which saw its bid for historic district status fall one vote short of approval in July.

To some the approval felt anti-climactic. But for most residents, there was elation.

“We’re thrilled that we’re a historic conservation district, finally. Finally!” said Sandra Palazolo, association president. “I think what a lot of our concerns were was demolishing houses. You can still have a house demolished, as long as it’s approved by Landmarks. It’s just another layer of protection. Now I’m feeling maybe we’re a little safer.”

In finally gaining historic district status, the neighborhood fulfilled a goal established back in 1967, when the association was founded, and continued in 1981 when the neighborhood achieved its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It put formal, legislative protections on the neighborhood known for its tree-lined streets, its historic architecture, and in its long-lived friendliness. It finally recognized the love and passion neighbors have for the neighborhood: its heavy wood molding and stained glass; the orderly grid system of the streets; the sense of pride and a sense of history.

And oh yes, the front porches.

“Just about everyone has a front porch here,” said neighborhood past-president Mark Vorder Bruegge Jr. “You can walk by a house and see people on the porch and say hello, and they speak back.”

“Why do I live here?” Palazolo went on to say. “It’s the ambience, the character. It’s real.”

And finally, protected.

…….

Notes:

This was the second of two parts – click here for Part I.

This article relied heavily on The Commercial Appeal reporting from the spring of 1992 to the spring of 1993. Quoted in this article is the work of these fine reporters:

Wayne Risher, Staff Reporter; Ron Maxey, Staff Reporter; Dave Hirschman, Staff Reporter; Susan Adler Thorp, political columnist; Roland Klose, Staff Reporter; Jerry Huston, Staff Reporter; The Commercial Appeal Editorial Board

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About Mark Fleischer 38 Articles
I was a career learning consultant in the payroll industry until moving from southern California to Memphis in late 2015. The Bluff City gave me a new start in the second half of my career, gifting me with a chance to return to my childhood fascinations with cities and my college passions in writing, theater, media, and storytelling, all the while allowing me to use my experience working with people, in consulting, teaching and communications, to bring a new voice to Memphis. This may be my first venture into multi-media publishing, but Life and Place - Memphis - gave me all the prep and tools I need.

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