Mounting obstacles: With new deadline, Spain House supporters get to work

TUPELO – The clock is ticking to save Tupelo’s historic Spain House after the city’s approval last week of a contract delaying its demolition at least 18 months.
But unless members of the Historic Preservation Commission can hatch a plan to relocate the three-story structure, the century-old home will be torn down.
It’s a daunting task with several components: Commission members must raise money, find a suitable site and seek a new owner. The goals could be accomplished in any one of numerous ways involving partners such as the federal government, private businesses or individuals, and nonprofit agencies.
No one yet knows what will happen, but the work already has begun.
“My ultimate goal right now is simply to get this house moved and saved,” said commission member Doyce Deas. “I almost don’t care how that happens as long as it does happen.”
The commission considers the Spain House one of Tupelo’s 10 most endangered properties. It was built at Main and Madison streets in 1910 by Tupelo pharmacist Robert L. Pound and his wife, Lucy Carter Pound.
It survived the deadly 1936 tornado before being sold to W.D. Spain and his wife, Letha Mefford Spain.
The house currently belongs to Calvary Baptist Church, which in 2006 bought the property, along with several adjacent parcels, for a development project. But Calvary wants the land, not the house.
The church’s attempt to give away the structure last year failed, and the commission blocked Calvary’s effort to demolish it by nominating the house as a local historic landmark. When the city approved the nomination, it gave the commission authority over whether the church could tear it down.
Not surprisingly, the commission denied the church a demolition certificate. The city Planning Committee this July upheld that decision when the church asked for an appeal.
The next step was an appeal to the City Council.
Instead, the church proposed a deal: If the city would take ownership of the structure for 18 months, the church wouldn’t seek to demolish it. If, however, the commission can’t figure out a way to relocate the structure, the city promised not to block demolition.
City leaders approved the contract Tuesday, giving the commission until April 1, 2012 to put its plan in action.
“The biggest part is to try to get it listed on the National Register” of Historic Places, said commission Chairwoman Karen Keeney. “Once we do that, it kind of sets the eligibility for a lot of different avenues of grants and funding.”
The process could take several months and involves approval from state and federal agencies.
The next step is funding. Relocating the house to a new site will cost about $35,000. Renovation will require much more – about $300,000 to bring it up to code and at least another $300,000 to fully restore it.
Finding a site could be easier, but it’s far from a done deal. Commission members hope the city will donate land it owns next to the former Carnation Milk plant in the Mill Village neighborhood.
The lot is large enough to accommodate the roughly 6,000-square-foot house, and the surrounding properties were built around the same time period and share many of the same architectural features.
And with the spot just blocks away from the current location, moving would be cheaper and easier.
“You’d still keep it close to where it was originally and still keep the local charm of it,” said commission member Stacey Gregory.
City Planner Pat Falkner said the site seems appropriate but that any such deal would require council approval. And it’s unclear the council will agree.
Most council members say they’re happy to give commission members more time to save the house. But no one wants to spend any money on it, and some are uncomfortable with the city taking anything more than a passive role in the matter.
“The city is overstepping its bounds,” said Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan, casting his opposition to the contract.
Bryan was the sole dissenter in the otherwise unanimous vote to accept the deal. But even other council members are skeptical about the future.
“I think we’re pushing off the inevitable,” Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington told the Daily Journal. “Unless the historic commission knows something that I don’t know, it’d cost a lot of money to move that house, and I don’t know if it can be moved.”
Besides obtaining grants and applying for historic tax credits, the commission wants to raise private funds for the home’s rehab. It’s launching a nonprofit arm to do just that.
The Preservation League of Tupelo-Lee County will work with the commission on special projects but will have a separate 501(c)3 designation to raise funds. Commission member Tish Horton is spearheading this effort and said she’s seeking people to join.
A tentative meeting has been set for October.
Finally, the group must find a new owner. The city said it doesn’t want the house, and it’s not yet clear if the commission’s nonprofit arm can raise enough to keep it.
“I think the nonprofit is a real good possibility,” Keeney said, “but if there was a private owner that was interested in doing things the right way, I think that would be another option, and we’re not closed off to that possibility either.”

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

EMILY LE COZ / NEMS Daily Journal