Church faces opposition on demolition of Tupelo house

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The Tupelo Historic Preservation Commission acted late Friday to temporarily save a 75-year-old house from destruction by its owner, First Baptist Church.
Commission members designated the house a local historic landmark at a hastily called meeting after learning the church obtained a demolition permit from City Hall. As of Friday afternoon, however, the permit hadn’t been resubmitted for approval.
The commission’s move prevents the issuing of any such permit for at least six months while it works its way through City Hall.
“We think it’s a house worthy of saving,” said commission Chairwoman Karen Keeney. “It’s architecturally significant to Tupelo, and especially Church Street.”
The house, known as the Rogers Home, was built in 1937 as an exact replica of the one formerly occupying that site. It had been destroyed by Tupelo’s deadly tornado one year prior. Located at 345 N. Church St., the stately mansion boasts a colonial revival architecture style with large sturdy columns in front.
It had changed hands several times until 2008, when First Baptist bought it. Properties Committee Chairman Gary Ford said the church acquired it for the sole purpose of demolishing it and constructing more parking lots.
“We ran out of parking four or five years ago, really,” Ford said. “We can barely accommodate the number of people attending our church now much less any visitors.”
The downtown church actually purchased three properties – the Rogers Home, the Jefferson Street house where the Christian Women’s Jobs Corps now operates, and another house on Madison Street whose backyard abuts the church’s parking lot. All of them eventually will come down for parking, Ford said.
But the Rogers Home has attracted the most attention – and opposition.
“I do not think that we need more parking,” said Gayle Wicker, who has grown up in the church and continues to regularly attend. “I strongly feel that people do not come to a church based on adequate parking. They come to a church feeling a spiritual need and if that need is met at a church they will come whether there is parking or not.”
Wicker said she and her husband, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., both strongly oppose the destruction of the Rogers Home, as they did when the church tore down the Adams Home some two decades ago for parking.
Gayle Wicker said she doubts the church’s membership grew as a result of the Adams House demolition or the extra parking it created.
Others in the community also expressed disappointment, including Church Street resident Stephanie Rhea, who said she doesn’t want to look at a parking lot that’s filled only once or twice weekly. Businessman Brad Prewitt also objected. He had recently renovated a historic home just one block south and urged the church to preserve the property.
But all parking aside, the church can’t afford to pump money into the structure to keep it in decent shape, Ford said, adding that it’s in “serious need of repair.” It has foundation issues, and needs a new roof, gutters and fresh coat of paint.
Tupelo attorney David McLaurin disagreed the home needs major repair. Before selling it to the church, McLaurin had sunk tens of thousands of dollars into its renovation. It has new wiring, new plumbing, new floor joists, new bathrooms, refurbished columns and dormers and resurfaced original hardwood floors.
It also retained its original beveled glass window panes, sliding pocket doors and other features unique to the house.
“I can’t believe they’re talking about tearing it down,” said McLaurin, who bought in the late 1990s and had it until 2008. “That disappoints me.”
Currently, First Baptist rents out the house to Firm Foundation Counseling Center, which is headed by church deacon Tim Brown. Brown said the church informed him in late November it wouldn’t renew his lease, which now ends Feb. 18.
He said he loves the house and doesn’t want it torn down, but that he’s trying not to get involved with the church’s decision.
The house’s fate is far from sealed, however. Ford’s committee will recommend demolition to the full church membership after Sunday’s evening worship service. Its members could decide to reject the proposal or put it on hold, Ford said.
Even if the church does proceed with demolition, the commission’s move could block it. If the City Council approves the recommendation for historic designation, the house will fall under the commission’s jurisdiction. And the commission can reject the church’s request for a permit.
“We did this reluctantly, but we had no other choice,” said commission member Doyce Deas. “We hope the church will be able to resolve this within the church body, but it’s such a significant piece of property, and we want to buy some time.”
The designation now will go before the City Council, which must hold a public hearing before taking its vote. If the council opposes the designation, the house will revert back to its original status after six months.
It’s a strikingly similar situation to the Spain House, which downtown’s Calvary Baptist Church tried to tear down recently. The commission intervened by designating it a historic landmark, which the council approved. The commission then rejected the church’s demolition bid.
Ultimately, though, Calvary and the commission worked out a deal with the city’s help to move the 100-year-old Spain House to a new site. The relocation will take place this spring.
Commission members said downtown churches must come together to solve their parking woes to avoid the further eradication of historic properties.
“We’ve lost so many already,” Deas said.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com