Memphis Church To Fall for CVS

The National Register-listed Union Avenue United Methodist Church, Memphis

Credit: Memphis Heritage


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.

Read more about the National Trust's agreement with chain drugstores >>

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Submitted by Deckape at: October 19, 2010
Read the headlines, keep your current drugstores. Stop the CVS monster before it hits your community. Do you really want what they have to offer. After reading the national headlines and posts online, reconsider your position.

Submitted by cindy at: September 15, 2010
cvs tore down a community owned hotel leases to community people so they could close another location and built a bigger store right next to the freeway in ferndale,mi. they got the property owners to do the eviction before they agreed to buy the building; i try to boycot cvs whenever possible; maybe your smaller drug stores can associate to get better prices, offer better jobs and get yhe community to give cvs no business.

Submitted by JJ at: September 15, 2010
Why can't CVS use the building as it sits, if they convert the interior for the functionality that they need it would still work. Other companies just as large as CVS have made concessions to keep with the feel of the town. I work in Davie and they have kept up the look of the old downtown. So why is this hard for CVS to do the same in other cities. They should make use of the buildings we have and untilize them and keep the character of our cities.

Submitted by Patty at: September 15, 2010
Huge Loss for our City. This has been a beacon for many in this area of town with education centers for the children and at risk in the neighborhood. Very Very Sad not to mention the wonderful building full of memories of many who love this place!!! They tore down paradise to put up a parking lot.

Submitted by Tracy at: September 14, 2010
If CVS is so keen on having this property, then why not try to adapt it and still make it a CVS? In the UK, this is done all the time. Here's an example of a major grocery in the center of Belfast, Northern Ireland--a stunning building and a thriving business, too:,r:3,s:0&tx=34&ty=62

Submitted by emer at: September 14, 2010
Corner property is for sale on the north side of the street from this property. Union Avenue currently has two drugstores within two blocks of this church. Drug stores and church are all on the south side. I'm wondering why CVS won't even consider adaptive reuse on this gorgeous building. Probably too much maintenance required to get it up to code. Union has been on the downhill slide for a long time. Tearing down this building is one more unnecessary nail in its coffin.

Submitted by CMyers at: September 10, 2010
Sorry to hear about this. We're fighting CVS tearing down a piece of your history in Omaha right now. I don't understand this sort of business practice.

Submitted by Memphis Resident at: September 9, 2010
I think it would benefit us tremendously if the National Trust would take a stand with us and be more assertive. Let's not use what's happening to this historic church as merely an example.

Submitted by Midtowner at: September 9, 2010
Neither the Methodist congregation nor CVS will allow anyone into the historic church in order to assess its condition. And yes, this photo was taken in the parking lot of Walgreens across the street. The market here is already oversaturated with drugstores - we have several others within a two-mile radius. I encourage all of you who care about preservation to stand up to CVS. Please help us by boycotting CVS, and please join the facebook group "Memphis Boycott CVS." They have been, at the very least, extremely deceptive to us in Memphis, and they have refused to meet with our community. I would hate for their actions here to become a new trend nationally.

Submitted by Editor at: September 8, 2010
About the date the church was constructed: According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, completed by church official Jerry Jones in 1986, "the church was built in three segments: the education building was constructed between 1914 and 1920, the sanctuary completed in 1923, and the education annex built in 1954."

Submitted by Tyler at: September 8, 2010
Have Trust Officials had words with CVS? I support the trust with my donation so that it has the resources to back up what it says is an agreement with national drug store chains. WHY is this happening???

Submitted by TaxiManSteve at: September 7, 2010
A peace of sorts was worked out in Keene, NH when we were allowed to move two historic buildings from the CVS site... But this high profile Memphis case makes me want to reconsider and start picketting the Keene CVS for the sins committed by the corporate headquarters. If they can tear up an agreement with the National Trust, so can we down in the grassroots, in diverse communities. What is good for the goose is good for the gander! Steven Lindsey state rep Keene, NH

Submitted by Kristin at: September 7, 2010
It should be noted that the photo of the church accompanying this article was taken from the parking lot of a DRUG STORE. I only wish I was kidding. Boycott CVS. Period.

Submitted by Somebody at: September 7, 2010
Somebody move church!

Submitted by TaxiManSteve at: September 6, 2010
So there will be no conversion of the Memphis church as was the fine case in Brattleboro, Vt.----See: And we will not be allowed to move at was the case in Keene, NH---See: And if CVS has decided to go back on its word and violate the agreement with the National Trust... Then I guess... It is war... An economic war... And if this church falls... And more follow it... Let's boycott CVS. Steven Lindsey state rep Ches-3 Keene, NH

Submitted by Brian at: September 3, 2010
Looks like a great building in good condition.

Submitted by ds at: September 3, 2010
Church wasn't built in 1954 so you might want to correct the headline on the main page, and why hasn't there been a conversation with CVS so far? Are they stalling and putting the Trust and Heritage off? Too bad this is the result, any alternative sites identified for CVS?