PHOTO: The George W. Morton House at 7186 Nolensville Road as seen on Tuesday, Feb. 20.
By LANDON WOODROOF
The Town of Nolensville has three homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of those, the George W. Morton House, is being considered for possible demolition.
The house is located at 7186 Nolensville Road, just north of the Nolen Park subdivision. Developers recently expressed interest in demolishing the building.
At 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 22 at Town Hall, Nolensville’s Historic Zoning Commission will determine whether or not to issue a Certificate of Appropriateness related to this request. According to Nolensville’s zoning ordinance, such a certificate has to be issued before “any designated historic resource” in town can be demolished.
If the Historic Zoning Commission does grant the certificate, developers could apply for a demolition permit as soon as the next day.
The George W. Morton House is located adjacent to the in-progress Hillside Center development. The house was purchased in November 2017 for $500,000 by M and S Holdings, LLC, an entity that shares an address with Malakouti Architects. Malakouti Architects is the company behind the Hillside Center development.
At a Jan. 9 Planning Commission meeting, a request was considered to rezone the Morton House property from a residential to a commercial designation. Ali Malakouti, representing the applicant for the request, said that the developers wanted to demolish the Morton House and put the property to another use.
“Our intention is to join it with our Hillside project next door,” Malakouti said.
The Morton House property is considered suitable for commercial development by the town’s Land Use Policy, so the rezoning request was approved, but not without some comments from commissioners.
“I’m just going to say for the record we don’t have that many places left in Nolensville that are historic like this, and this is on the [National Register of Historic Places],” Planning Commissioner and Vice Mayor Jason Patrick said. “One of the things we hear with regularity is preserving the historic nature of Nolensville, and I wouldn’t feel good if I didn’t at least say I have some heartburn at the fact of this being demolished.”
Mayor Jimmy Alexander expressed a similar view, adding that when the Morton House was first purchased he was told that the buyers were going to try to preserve it.
“I feel much the same as you do,” Alexander said. “In fact, I spoke with the owner months ago, and he said his intent when he purchased the property was to restore the house and maybe use it as an office for the complex.”
That plan apparently changed as the purchaser became more aware of the state of the house.
“He then later told me the house was in such bad condition…he wouldn’t be able to save it without it costing him a fortune,” Alexander said. “I went into the house when they had an estate sale, and I’m no expert, but it did look pretty bad and restoring it would be difficult.”
Contrary to what many may think, a National Register of Historic Places designation does not give any federal protection to a property.
“Under Federal Law, the listing of a property in the National Register places no restrictions on what a non-federal owner may do with their property up to and including destruction, unless the property is involved in a project that receives Federal assistance, usually funding or licensing/permitting,” a frequently asked questions section on the National Register website reads.
That same page, though, cautions that property owners should be aware of any relevant state or local preservation laws before they “undertake a project with a historic property.”
Nolensville’s zoning ordinance seems to fit within this category. That ordinance lays out the conditions under which a Certificate of Appropriateness is needed from the Historic Zoning Commission.
It reads, in part: “No exterior feature of any designated historic resource shall be added to, altered, repaired, relocated or demolished until an application for a Certificate of Appropriateness of such work has been approved by the Historic Zoning Commission.”
At least one local organization is opposed to the demolition of the George W. Morton House. The Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County was formed just over 50 years ago “to save the architectural and cultural resources that make Franklin and Williamson County so unique.”
Annabeth Hayes, the Heritage Foundation’s director of preservation, said she would be attending Thursday night’s meeting to speak out against demolishing the Morton House. Hayes said that “one-of-a-kind buildings like the George Morton House” are essential to a town or city’s character.
“Over the past few decades, many groups and individuals have worked very hard with developers to help them understand that preservation is a part of smart growth because it offers a long-term investment with cultural, economic, and even environmental benefits for the people who live there,” Hayes said in an email. “Historic structures like the George Morton House are what physically define and separate Nolensville from other places across the state, and we continue to advocate for buildings like these because once they are gone, they are gone forever.”
It is difficult to say with certainty how many buildings on the register have been destroyed in Tennessee in recent years.
“We do not have specific numbers about demolition of NR properties in Tennessee,” Holly Barnett, the historical preservation supervisor for the Tennessee Historical Commission, said. “We do keep records of properties that have been removed from the National Register. We typically only remove properties from the NR if they are no longer extant, have been moved from their original location, or have been extensively altered to a point that they do not retain integrity. Unfortunately, several of our recent de-listings were lost to fire.”
Barnett said that Tennessee currently has a total of 2,191 entries on the National Register. The number changes, though, each year.
“Over the last three years in Tennessee, we have listed an average of 25 properties each year and de-listed an average of 3.5 properties,” she said.
The 2,191 entries on the National Register include 287 historic districts. Each district can contain numerous historic properties, so altogether there are 41,444 “historic resources” from Tennessee on the registry, “which means that 3-4 properties each year is thankfully a small percentage of the whole,” Barnett said.
She added that owners of historical properties are eligible for a 20 percent Investment Tax Credit if they choose to rehabilitate rather than demolish a building on the register or in one of the register’s historic districts.
After January’s Planning Commission vote, the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen also took up the issue of rezoning the Morton House property. On Feb. 1, the BOMA voted to approve the rezoning on first reading. There will be a public hearing on that rezoning request on March 1. The request will then have to be approved on second reading on April 5 before it goes into effect.
In all, there are five buildings listed in Nolensville on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to the George W. Morton House, there is the former Bank of Nolensville building, which currently houses the Pick-it Fence Junktique, the Sherwood Green House on Rocky Ford Road, the Jordan-Williams House also on Rocky Ford Road, and the Historic Nolensville School.