Memphis Church To Fall for CVS
By Gwendolyn Purdom | Online Only | Sept. 3, 2010
Last week, almost a century after the Union Avenue United Methodist Church's first building rose on a Midtown Memphis corner, the city council voted to move forward with plans to demolish the historic structure and construct a CVS Pharmacy in its place. The 10-2 decision at a packed meeting August 24 overrode earlier rulings by the city's Office of Planning and Development, as well as its Land Use Control Board.
Preservation groups say the project not only destroys a piece of Memphis history, but also goes against an agreement major national drugstore chains, including CVS, made in 2000 with the National Trust for Historic Preservation not to demolish any National Register-listed buildings to make way for new stores.
"There are so many different groups that see the value of this building, not only for its architectural significance, but for what it means to the Midtown community," says June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage. "It's heartbreaking to talk to older members of the church that were married there, that had their children christened there … because they're just devastated."
What would become the Union Avenue UMC congregation formed in 1892 and purchased land at the southwest corner of Union Avenue and South Cooper streets when they outgrew their small frame church in 1912. Built in three sections between 1914 and 1954, the Union Avenue church's projecting center porticos, Ionic limestone columns, and arched multi-pane windows were the work of local architects like John Gaisford, who designed the church's education building in 1914 and Hubert Thomas McGhee, who was hired to create the sanctuary in 1921. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
The dwindling Union Avenue congregation vacated the building and merged with the nearby St. Luke's Methodist Church in April. It still owns the red-brick Classical Revival structure and will reportedly receive the $2.3 million from the sale. In a March 26 letter to the congregation explaining the decision, pastors Mark Matheny and Birgitte French said: "We regret that our old property is beyond repair at any reasonable cost, and we acknowledge the temptation we have faced toward sentimentality, or to value the past and physical surroundings over the deep needs of people here in Memphis. …. We have come to conclude that sale of the property and the use of the proceeds for genuine ministry is clearly the direction in which God has led us."
Wanting money for the church is understandable, West says, but by allowing CVS to gain and demolish the property, the congregation and the city council overlooked several options. Other churches had expressed interest in purchasing the building, West says, along with some local arts groups.
"It is a building that has been on the National Register for a long time; its value has been recognized," says John Hildreth, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southern Office. "So some kind of use that would bring vitality back to that building—that would help anchor that key intersection in Midtown—would be good. And that can be a church, that can be an adaptive use, a retail use, or some mixed use ... any number of things, and it can be done sensibly."
Hildreth says Memphis Heritage, which has been fighting to save the church for more than a year, contacted the Trust specifically about its work with chain drugstores. The trend of erecting free-standing, cookie-cutter drugstores at busy intersections has been on the rise for the last decade, according to National Trust President Stephanie Meeks in an August 18 letter to Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, Jr.
"Concerned for the jarring impact this design model brought to urban neighborhoods, the National Trust sought national drug store companies’ cooperation in avoiding sites that contained National Register-listed properties," Meeks wrote. "CVS was among those companies approached by the National Trust, and in 2000 they agreed to abide by this request. The National Trust is disappointed to learn CVS is not honoring this commitment in Memphis."
West and Hildreth say they have not yet met with CVS to discuss the situation.
"We hope to be able to have a conversation with CVS going forward and clarify where we can go from here," Hildreth says.
Josh Whitehead, assistant city attorney in the planning and development division, says urban planning and keeping development within the parameters of the proposed Midtown Overlay plan, not preservation, were the top priorities in the city’s decision making process.
"Memphis Heritage did get the troops out and did express the historic value of the structure, but no one on the council, in my sense, shared the commitment to preserve that building," Whitehead says. "They all kind of expressed sorrow that the building has to come down, but the council—even the two dissenters who voted against the project, along with the Land Use Control Board—even they focused on the design [of the new building]."
The developer for CVS and the church members also argued the project would advance economic development in the area. Members from several area Methodist churches were bused to the city council meetings wearing buttons that read "CVS = Jobs." That idea is short-sighted, West says.
"Our concern is that if CVS comes in here, it will more than likely be the demise of one or two other drug stores on Union Avenue, which will probably lose 25 to 50 jobs, and then leave a non-urban style building blighted," West says. "I think they looked maybe six months ahead, but they didn’t look a year ahead when they made that decision."
West says locals are also disappointed in CVS' lack of response to Midtown residents' concerns about the demolition.
"Whether that response is negative, positive, or in between, a good company that has corporate values and community values would respond," she says, "and I find it very, very interesting and very difficult that they have not responded at all." Attorney Ricky Wilkins, who represents CVS' developer on the project, did not follow up on requests for comment.
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