The Tupelo City Council’s split decision last week to grant historic status to the Spain House owned by Calvary Baptist Church hardly closes the matter.
What will become of the house is still unknown. Renovation could cost as much as $500,000, and church leaders say that’s out of the question. City Historic Preservation Commission members say there are grants and other funds available and they’ll help the church pursue them.
Calvary made the commitment to remain in the downtown area after its sanctuary burned in 1992. It rebuilt on the same spot and acquired surrounding property with the intent of future expansion of its facilities. There was no restriction on the use of the Spain House property when it was purchased.
The commitment, like that of several other nearby churches that have reinvested in the downtown area in recent years, is significant. Churches draw people downtown and contribute to its stability and character. The extensive membership rolls of the downtown churches provide a ready-made advocacy group for keeping the area strong. The city and commission are obligated to work with Calvary’s leadership to find a solution that works for all concerned.
Obviously, no one can force the church to spend money on the house. The commission, having won the designation it sought, is now morally if not legally compelled to do all that it can to see that the money is secured from outside sources.
Failing that, it would seem unwise to insist that the house, now with additional protection from demolition, must remain where it is. The church has made a good-faith effort to find someone willing to move the century-old house and renovate it. Keeping the house in its original location may be preferable, but given the circumstances preserving the house in another location would represent progress for preservationists.
Surely if someone does step forward with such an offer it will be seen as a reasonable compromise and allowed. Otherwise, it’s conceivable that the house will remain where it is, unused, and gradually deteriorate. What will then have been accomplished?
It’s true that Tupelo hasn’t been concerned enough about its architectural history. Much of the town’s physical past was blown away in the horrific 1936 tornado, making the indifference for so long to what remained doubly unfortunate.
But there must be a balance in historic preservation with legitimate property rights and financial concerns. Calvary, the city and the historic commission should be partners, not adversaries, in finding a solution.
Historic preservationists must be careful not to be too heavy-handed lest they produce a public backlash to their worthy goals.
NEMS Daily Journal