Monday, March 19, 2012

Fehr School: Nashville's civil rights history vs. the Metro Action Commission

Last week I spoke with my council member about progress to a rezoning measure that would preserve the historic facade of Salemtown's Fehr school. Erica Gilmore met with a Historical Commission representative, Cynthia Croom from the Metro Action Commission and lawyers representing each of the parties. Metro Action controls the Fehr property, which currently houses North Nashville Head Start. Apparently Ms. Croom dug in her heels and refused to lend MAC support for a historic overlay for the former public school building saying that her department needs to be free to make any changes to the exterior that the federal government requires of them.

So, the side backing down was the CM and the Historical Commission, which support an overlay for the endangered building. A council lawyer is supposed to be working on an ordinance. CM Gilmore told me that the proposed ordinance would protect the historic facade in the case Metro Action ever relinquishes control of the school building.

However and in the mean time, Metro Action would be allowed to make any alteration to the building's exterior that strikes them as necessary. If they want to re-orient the front of the building away from 5th to 4th and brick up the current entrance they can. If they want to punch a hole in the brick wall to add a utility room, HVAC handling room, or a dining hall they would not be restricted by ordinance. If they want to build a new facade over the old one to front the sidewalk they could. They can do whatever they want to the old building.

In my one-on-one discussions with Cynthia Croom in the past she reacted with what seemed to me to be profound allergies to the idea of rezoning to protect the historical qualities of the building from the unforgiving and arbitrary designs of the federal government. She did not express any openness to working toward a win-win with those of us in Nashville trying to protect this important landmark. Instead, she made it clear that she was unwilling to bend to any possibilities other than those decorating her own turf.

So, I was not surprised to learn from Erica Gilmore that Ms. Croom is still unwaveringly opposed to protecting the building from radical alteration. My support of preserving history has nothing to do with not wanting a federal program like Head Start in my neighborhood. I think it is wonderful that kids from families of modest means are continuing to use a living museum. However, I don't believe that Metro Action should be allowed to do whatever it wants to the front of the building to justify the drive for more federal revenues.

In the end, if the MAC Executive Director wants to ignore the sacred civil rights history of Fehr School and demo the entire facade she can do so. She can prepare budget proposals that could bury the memorial to the brave Salemtown children who desegregated the school in the name of caring for Head Start kids now. I tend to be a pragmatist about Metro ordinances. However, protecting the Fehr School building beginning at some indefinite future date when Metro Action moves Head Start to another place seems to me like legislation without any teeth since any alteration is permitted to MAC, including the more extreme forms that would render the ordinance silly once it becomes enforceable because of the lack of any history to protect.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mike, thanks for your attention to the Fehr School. As a board member of Historic Nashville (and chair of our Nashville 9 committee), I can tell you our organization fully supports the landmarking of the school and your efforts to draw attention to it. I spoke with Tim Walker of the Metro Historical Commission and wanted to share some information that I hope you will find reassuring.

    Cynthia Croom may be opposed to the proposed landmark ordinance so she can be free to make changes to the building, but the MAC is almost entirely Federally funded. That means that if it were to use Federal money for renovations or additions it would be subject to a review process under Section 106 of the NHPA ( This process aims to find ways for Federal undertakings to avoid adverse effects on historic properties. In plain words, it would not allow the MAC to just go and make any changes it wants to whenever it wants to. Read more at the link above.

    On top of this, if I am not mistaken the MAC is planning to relocate at some point in the near future. When that happens, the councilperson and the MHC will likely be able to landmark the property without opposition.

    Lastly, it is also my understanding that the surrounding neighborhood is pursuing a conservation zoning overlay, which would include the school building (and regulate exterior changes) despite the MAC's opposition.

    HNI is happy that Salemtown and the Fehr school have you watching out for their best interests, and hope that this info helps.

    David Price