If ever a school got a raw deal from a city government, that school is Harding Academy, a small, private, nondenominational school on the western edge of the city, not far from Belle Meade Plantation. It took Harding a dozen years to assemble parcels of real estate, including eight houses, that the school wants to convert into a couple of soccer fields to give a boost to its pedestrian athletic programs. Metro, backed by two neighborhood groups, enacted a historic zoning ordinance that blocked the school from obtaining demolition permits, which sparked several rounds of litigation. Harding has mostly won in court, but because of a legal snafu, it has appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court for a final ruling.
All that is the background. What’s new is that Harding officials recently tried to donate doors, lighting fixtures, fireplace mantels, trim moldings and other materials from the homes to the Nashville office of Habitat for Humanity, materials Habitat expected to sell in one of two stores in the Metro area. In other words, Harding intended to remove interiormaterials, not exterior materials, from the houses and give them to charity.
But last month, Terry Cobb, head of Metro’s Codes Administration, sent a letter to Harding and Habitat officials telling them to cease and desist. Under Metro’s building codes, tearing out interior furnishings amounts to a demolition, or at least a significant alteration of the homes.
An exasperated Bob Walker, Harding’s attorney, fired off a letter in return pointing out that Habitat had accomplished similar work on more than 90 homes without interference from code officials.
“It is truly difficult to fathom how blind animosity of a cabal of neighborhood zealots can influence this administration toward such continued, uneven and targeted aggression against Harding Academy—to the extent that it adversely affects a worthy charity and harms underprivileged citizens,” Walker’s letter reads.
But the heated missive seems to have had all the impact of a Davidson A.M. story. Habitat isn’t expected to remove the interior fixtures from the eight homes and Harding seems to have accepted defeat.
Harding board president Don Barnes has issued a two-sentence memo saying, “Harding Academy is disappointed that its effort to donate certain interior components from its houses to Habitat for Humanity has drawn legal opposition from Metro. The school believes that the donation is proper and would further Habit for Humanity’s work in meeting genuine need in the Nashville community.”
Cobb says Harding officials wouldn’t have been disappointed if they had obtained a permit before trying to remove the materials. “If you replace a fireplace mantel, floorboards, tubs, light fixtures—these types of things—that’s really a start to a remodeling project, not just a demolition project,” Cobb says. “Either way, whether demolition or remodeling, you need a permit.”
Cobb says he’s sorry if Habitat was deprived of donations because of his ruling but notes that Harding has the option to appeal or obtain a permit. “I’m a big believer in Habitat for Humanity. It’s my personal charity of choice. I haven’t said they couldn’t take out the materials. I said they couldn’t without a permit. I’ve been told Habitat has done similar construction without a permit. If they have, they’ve done so without my knowledge.”
Then again, given Metro’s open challenges against Harding, isn’t it justifiable for school officials to doubt they’d be able to obtain a permit from codes to gut the inside of the homes? “I can’t tell you that,” Cobb says. “I’d have to consult with the Metro legal department first because of the litigation.”
Which means the fate of the Harding homes is uncomfortably uncertain, especially if the Tennessee Supreme Court decides not to hear the case, which is the high court’s discretion. Harding can simply let the homes dilapidate to the point of being ratty, uninhabitable eyesores, at which point Metro might actually demand that they be razed. This strategy is nothing new. It’s called demolition by neglect, a term well-known to preservationists, though mainly in conjunction with saving buildings of historic value.
There’s nearly universal agreement that there’s nothing special about the eight Harding homes. They don’t have historic value, neighborhood groups have argued, but are essential to the fabric of the Belle Meade Links neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. So they sit boarded up, blighting an otherwise quaint neighborhood as residents continue to fight what is probably a losing battle.
Harding Academy, meanwhile, has learned a lesson: that a city government, among other things, can tell citizens what they can and cannot put in—or take out of—their homes.
“Many people make assumptions about building codes,” Cobb says, “which may or may not be correct.”