PHOTO: Lynda Moses watches Mary Pearce speak while holding a copy of “Nolensville 1797-1987: Reflections of a Tennessee Town” opened to a picture of the George W. Morton House, also known as the Brittain House.
By LANDON WOODROOF
It was the largest crowd that Nolensville Historic Zoning Commission Chair Josh Hughes had ever seen at one of his commission’s meetings, and the message that the crowd imparted was clear: save the house.
The house in question is the George W. Morton House, built in 1870 and located at 7186 Nolensville Road. It is one of only three residences in Nolensville listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Developers recently announced their intention to demolish the house, saying it was in such bad shape that restoring it would be too costly. According to the town’s zoning ordinance, though, the Historic Zoning Commission has to issue a Certificate of Appropriateness before “any historic site or structure” can be demolished.
On Thursday night, the commission declined to issue a Certificate of Appropriateness for the Morton House’s demolition. The motion to deny the request was unanimous. One commissioner, Tommy Dugger, recused himself from the discussion and the vote since his realty company was involved with the sale of the house.
At the beginning of the meeting, a number of Nolensville residents and preservationists from neighboring cities announced their opposition to the proposed demolition of the house. Many spoke personally and passionately on the subject, emphasizing how important history was to them and, in their view, the Town of Nolensville.
Vice Mayor Jason Patrick was the first to speak.
“One of the things that makes Nolensville so special is the melding of new and old,” he said. “Most of Nolensville has been here a short period of time…but one of the things that draws so many people here is the historic nature of Nolensville, the small town charm and the feel of the community.”
Patrick said he realized that restoring the house or even relocating it would be expensive, but suggested it would be worth it for the town to allow time for options other than demolition to be considered. Perhaps grants, tax breaks or donations, for example, could help save the home.
“Quite frankly our historic resources are dwindling quickly and we just don’t have that many left,” he said.
Dianne Santiago grew up in Nolensville, but lived away for many years before finally moving back home with her husband. Her sense of Nolensville is suffused with an appreciation for its history.
“One of the things I remembered most about this area was the history,” she said. “Being a child I remember the battlefields, I remember the old homes. That’s part of the reason we chose this place to relocate to.”
She has noticed, though, as an adult that despite Nolensville’s rich history, it does not have that many historic buildings to show for it. Santiago said she hopes some of the remaining history can be preserved for future generations.
“You don’t want to lose all of your past,” she said. “If you lose it what have you got to teach kids about how things were at one time?”
Others spoke about how historic preservation, rather than being a drain on finances, can actually be an economic boon.
“Thirty to 40 years ago people looked at the buildings in downtown Franklin and said exactly what people are saying about this house: ‘It would just be cheaper to tear it down and build something new,’” Annabeth Hayes, the director of preservation at the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, said. “If you fast forward to today you can see just how wrong they were about that. Franklin has had an economic boom thanks to the unique sense of place that their historic buildings have provided.”
Mary Pearce is the former director of the Heritage Foundation. She, too, extolled the economic virtues of preservation.
“It would be very, very hard in Williamson County to make the case that someone has invested in a historic property and been hurt financially,” she said. “It just hasn’t happened.” Rather, she said that historic preservation “has been our biggest friend in Williamson County as far as economic development” is concerned.
Like others, Pearce also focused on the less tangible but to many no less powerful effect that historic buildings can have on a town.
“All you have in Nolensville in my mind is your story of Nolensville and why Nolensville is special,” she said. “And this is one of those resources that tell your story for your people, for my grandchildren and for generations to come. But once you tear it down it’s gone and you’re not getting it back.”
The George W. Morton House is located next door to the Hillside commercial center, which is being developed by Malakouti Architects and is currently under construction. The developers behind that project purchased the home in November 2017 for $500,000. They want to tear the house down to incorporate it into the Hillside development.
Ali Malakouti represented the purchasers at the meeting. Malakouti said he realized that he was probably not going to be the most popular person in the room Thursday night, but emphasized he and his family’s close connections to the area. Malakouti said he and his family live nearby and that his younger brother attended Nolensville Elementary School.
Malakouti Architects hired a firm, Nash Engineers, to do a structural report of the home. That report found a number of serious problems with the Morton House.
“According to reports the footing, the foundations, the floor system, a lot of the load bearing walls, the roof itself, they’re either failing or they’re infested with termites or in a lot of cases both,” Malakouti said.
The engineers report does indeed point out shifting stones and cracks in the foundation on top of numerous other issues. A separate report by a pest company, Optimus Pest Solutions, likewise notes “extensive damage to beams, support timbers, flooring and joists” from termites.
Malakouti said it was simply not economically feasible to restore the home and bring it up to code.
Malakouti Architects put together a cost analysis of what it would take to get the home in shape and up to code as a commercial property. Their conclusion is that it would take $485,000 to do that; that number is on top of the $500,000 they paid for the property. Malakouti said that even if they got a loan to do all that work and subsequently rented out the house, they would lose thousands of dollars every month.
Historic Zoning Commission Chair Hughes said he thought those seemed like worst case scenario numbers. Earlier in the meeting, former Nolensville Mayor Beth Lothers had also taken issue with some of the numbers.
Hughes asked Malakouti if he had taken into account the home’s historic status before purchasing the property. Malakouti said that they knew the house had some historic significance, but did not realize that would be an impediment to moving forward with the demolition of the house since the house is not actually in the town’s Historic District.
“We were blindsided in a lot of ways,” he said.
Hughes suggested that M and S Holdings should have done some more research before going forward with the purchase.
“If you had done your due diligence and known you’d have to come before the Historic Zoning Commission to get a demolition permit and that the house was on the historic register maybe you wouldn’t have paid $500,000 for the house,” he said.
Hughes said he thought it would set a dangerous precedent to allow the demolition under the present circumstances.
“In my mind, I don’t want to set the precedent where somebody can go and pay whatever number it is for a property, and it gets put into their pro forma on whether or not the property is economically viable to improve,” he said. “They could pay $1 million for another property and then all of a sudden it doesn’t make sense.”
Hughes also said that he thought the buyers should at least consider alternative approaches that would include saving the house, rather than just moving forward right away with demolition.
“I don’t mean to be insensitive to your situation, but in some ways I don’t have as much sympathy for it because I don’t feel like the house was given a chance to be saved,” he said. “I feel like it was purchased quickly. It feels like a little bit of opportunism to me personally.”
Commissioner Jeanne Boutilier also said she would like to see the purchasers explore some other options for what to do with the home.
“I think it would be hasty to allow it to be demolished until we have the opportunity to look at what some of these other opportunities are,” she said. “And hopefully it would work to your benefit as well.”
When the vote to deny the Certificate of Appropriateness came in, the audience broke out into applause.