Spain House issue draws large crowd

TUPELO – It had the potential for a torches-and-pitchforks kind of debate; instead the city’s historical-designation hearing for the Spain House and two other properties was civil and polite.
Dozens of people packed the City Council chambers late Monday afternoon for the one-hour public meeting during which several residents spoke.
Some asked the council to turn the properties into local historic landmarks, thereby protecting them from alteration or demolition. Others asked the council to reject such a move. Most were complimentary of the other side.
Council members listened to the debate but will not vote until their regularly scheduled meeting at 6 p.m. tonight.
At issue are the East Main Street water tower, the barn and silos at the Oren Dunn Museum, and the century-old house at the corner of Main and Madison streets referred to as the Spain House after one of its former owners.
The Spain House is the most contentious because its owner, Calvary Baptist Church, wants the house removed so it can develop the site for other purposes. The church is located on the other end of the block.
Church members Greg Pirkle and Wilson Long spoke against the designation.
Pirkle said when the church bought the property three years ago, it was part of a long-range plan to buy up the entire block and that members did so with the understanding they could use the site however they saw fit.
Long said the church tried to give the house away free to whomever would take it – including the city – but no one wanted it. He said he recognized the Tupelo Historic Preservation Commission’s efforts to save the home but that the church opposed it.
Also against historic designation was Wayne Washington, who said he owns property near the Spain House and dislikes any attempt by the city to override individual property rights. Washington is an elder at the Gloster Street Church of Christ, which tore down the 1920s Mockingbird Inn and a nearby brick bungalow earlier this year.
Speaking for historic designation were Tish Wright, Karen Keeney and Michael Jones, all members of the City’s Historic Preservation Commission. Perhaps the most passionate plea came from Wright, a former chairwoman of the group and a Calvary Baptist Church member.
Wright said she understood the concerns of property owners but that the city had to start somewhere in saving historic buildings and sites. If not the Spain House, she asked, then where?
“Please tell us where we’re supposed to start to carry out your duty of historic designation,” Wright asked the council, while referring to the commission as an advisory arm of the municipal government.
Jones, who is the chairman, said Tupelo is slowing losing its history one property at a time and that soon the city will lack any of its original character. He also praised the church for trying to work out a “win-win solution” even though it appeared it hadn’t reached fruition.
Keeney, the vice chair, said an “anonymous person” was willing to renovate the house if the church would donate it along with the site. Otherwise, she said, that person would move the house to the Palmetto community and renovate it there.
Pirkle said the church would not donate the site but would gladly donate the house if that person would take it.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal