Spain House gets historic status

TUPELO – City leaders voted to save the historic Spain House on Tuesday, but the century-old structure’s fate is far from sealed.
In a split vote, the City Council granted the house status as a local historic landmark, which prevents anyone from demolishing it. It also provides the three-story home protection by the Tupelo Historic Preservation Commission.
The commission had nominated the downtown structure for historic status during its June 11 meeting. Its members feared the home’s owner, Calvary Baptist Church, planned to tear it down.
They were right: Calvary members have repeatedly said they can’t afford to renovate the deteriorating house and want to use the site, on the corner of West Main and Madison streets, for a new development.
Those plans haven’t changed, church spokesman Greg Pirkle said after the council’s vote.
“Even under the historic preservation act under the city of Tupelo, the property owner is entitled to tear it down if it’s economically unfeasible to renovate,” Pirkle said. “All they did was put up additional bureaucratic hoops for the church to jump through.”
Calvary can seek a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the house, but it must do so through the Historic Preservation Commission, which is unlikely to grant it. The church can then appeal the commission’s decision the council. It’s unclear, however, if the council would reverse its stance.
Several council members stressed the need for Tupelo to protect its historic structures, saying the city has lost too many already.
“Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” said Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings, who voted for the designation.
Also approving the move were Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell, Ward 4 Councilwoman Nettie Davis, and Ward 5 Councilman Johnny Davis.
Opposed were Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington and Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan. Both men said they support historic preservation but not at the expense of property owners’ rights.
Council President Fred Pitts, who attends Calvary, did not vote.
The council initially had tabled the decision during its Aug. 18 meeting and left it on the table during both its September meetings. But the group took it up again this week.
Most council members, regardless of their decision, commended both Calvary and the Historic Preservation Commission for trying to reach a compromise. The two groups spent much of the summer seeking someone who’d remove the house from the lot and renovate it at a new location.
Calvary even offered the house for free, and though many people expressed interest, ultimately none took it.
Historic Preservation Commission Chairman Michael Jones said he’d like his group to continue working with the church and will discuss the matter with members at their meeting Thursday.
He lauded the council’s decision: “I think it’s a very proactive approach to the bigger issue of trying to save historic buildings.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal