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VOL. 41 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 8, 2017

In with the old

Knoxville’s quest to preserve its treasured historic homes

By Joe Morris

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In the historic preservation business, a structure saved is a win. A tiny brick business, a large home or estate, a block of downtown … the size is irrelevant. What matters is keeping it standing.

Still, some wins are sweeter than others. So, when the Howard House (also known as Le Reve), a historic home in north Knoxville, was recently spared demolition to make way for a Walmart neighborhood store, there were a few tears and high-five’s in the Knox Heritage offices.

That organization, which has been around since 1974, works throughout East Tennessee to raise the profile, and value, of historic buildings and sites.

Howard House, which has nearly 4,500-square-feet and was finished in 1910 for original owner Lynn Hayes, had been placed on Knoxville’s Fragile 15, a list of properties or structures in need of preserving.

The Historic Howard House on North Broadway has been the home of numerous prominent Knoxvillians throughout it’s 107-year of existence. Originally dubbed “The La Reve,” French for “My Dream,” the house was recently purchased by Danny Harb, a local businessman, after Walmart passed on an opportunity to buy the land for a potential new store.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

While Knox Heritage, led by Kim Trent, executive director, advocates tirelessly for Knoxville’s historic properties, funding to buy or renovate a structure depends on individuals, other organizations and crowdfunding. Dealing with zoning, working with developers and other issues makes it difficult to find a happy ending for many historic places or homes.

Sterchi Mansion, designed by locally renowned architect R.F Graf and built in 1910, was once home to the furniture tycoon Sterchi family.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

That’s why a win for a saved property or structure is a prized victory.

Beautiful on Broadway

The 1910, two-story home on North Broadway is built in the Beaux-Arts or Craftsman style, depending on who you talk to, and did not lack for admirers. That helped, too.

“La Reve, or the Howard House, is a beautiful house and one of the last remaining historic homes along Broadway,” Trent explains.

“The Howards had been there since the late 1940s, and they set up their business in it about the same time. Over the years they even received some awards for maintaining the home, even though they’d put up some fake walls and made other modifications inside, because those can be reversed.’’

Estabrook Hall on UT’s campus, which houses the engineering department’s “Reliability and Maintainability Center.” The aging, brown building sits just a few yards east of Neyland Stadium. Now, the antiquated educational facility is in danger of destruction as the football facility plans to renovate the south end zone.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

In 1949, it became the office of Howard & Howard Plumbing & Heating. The Howard family also lived there.

“When [the owner] passed away in 2014, the heirs began to look into selling the property, which has a huge back yard that runs to a creek. One possible buyer was a developer who was also going to buy the Centerpoint Church property next door, take it all down and put in a Walmart neighborhood store.”

As is often the case, Trent and her team got word of all this after potential development plans were moving well along. No stranger to rapid mobilization, however, she put up an online petition to save the structure before boarding a flight.

When she deplaned hours later, there were thousands of signatures, and the community outcry continued through a $100,000 anonymous challenge tied to a GoFundMe campaign.

“We even got a donation from Mayor Madeline Rogero,” Trent acknowledges, which might not seem too surprising given that the structure has housed two city councilmen, a Knox County trustee and a Knoxville city manager over the years.

Meetings with the developers followed, and conversations with city officials about the land’s zoning ensued, as well.

“There were a lot of complications, including moving the land from office to commercial zoning, as well as a potential development offer that was well above what the house and land might have been worth depending on the zoning,” Trent explains.

The house at 2921 N. Broadway was listed for $575,000 by real estate company Wood Properties, according to reports.

Saving grace

“And then, as so often happens in preservation, someone from completely outside the process came in and saved us.”

That someone is Dan Harb, a manager at HP Video just down Broadway near the Fourth and Gill neighborhood.

Harb, who grew up in the area, and his wife Rhoda had lived in Charleston, South Carolina, where they owned a home of similar vintage before moving back to Knoxville.

“I have driven by that place every day, just about and always admired it,” Harb says.

“When it came up for sale, I took a look at it. And when I saw all the room out back I decided to pursue it for no other reason than I really loved it.

“I realized that most of the woodwork on the inside was intact, and many of the original fixtures remain. I have a real interest in all that, and so that was another way it had an appeal for me.”

The Harbs have no set timeline for renovation, but do plan to take down false walls that were used in the portion dedicated to the Howards’ business and restore those rooms to their original design.

Harb adds he probably will have a personal office there, and at some point might explore putting a studio into a rear room that would make a nice setting.

“We really haven’t decided what to do yet,” he says, “We’ve walked through it several times, both before and after buying it, and really were just focused on preserving it.

“We’re going to take our time, because it really is a lovely house and we don’t want to go too fast.”

And at Knox Heritage, the property moves off the annual “Fragile 15” list of endangered sites.

“It’s a huge save,” Trent notes. “The whole town rejoiced when they found out it wasn’t going to be demolished.”