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The Huffaker House As Another Argument for Stronger Preservation Laws

One of the oldest houses in Knox County vanished without discussion or hubbub a couple of weeks ago. The 1830s Huffaker House, in the Seven Islands area along the French Broad River in the southeastern part of the county, was there one week and gone the next, its foundation graded away as if the house was never there at all, a backhoe sitting serenely nearby. 

Its fate wasn't altogether unexpected, but a shame nonetheless, considering there were prospective buyers who were interested in restoring this rare antebellum landmark to live in. 

I wrote about it a little over a year ago. The house was to be the subject of a volunteer fire-department practice fire, a community spectacle. At the 11th hour, Ann Bennett, then of the Metropolitan Planning Commission--she has since retired--and Kim Trent, of Knox Heritage, drove out to the site to investigate. 

Bennett knew the house; she had documented it back in the 1980s, when it was in good shape and a family, who were proud of the house and its history, lived in it. Later, a 2003 river-corridor study included a description of the house, with its date and known history. 

It was a bona fide antebellum home, a real rarity in Knox County. If not the sort of place that would stun you from the road--it had been covered in weatherboarding and the original windows had been removed and fitted with cheap replacements--the original house was still there, muffled underneath the weatherboarding, and in pretty good shape. 

Bennett and Trent were allowed into the house last year by an owner who they thought seemed confident about the obviousness of its worthlessness. They were astonished at what was there--more original furnishing than one usually expected in a 180-year-old house, intact hardwood flooring, staircase and balustrade, original doors and antique hardware. The owner, Dr. William Hovis, claimed then he did not know the house was all that old. 

The firemen were quickly convinced to leave it alone. The owner wasn't. Hovis let it sit for another year, as Knox Heritage found people who wanted to buy and restore it. It wasn't that hard. It's a pretty gorgeous spot, with shade trees in front, overlooking the French Broad.

Antebellum houses in Knoxville are a rarity. When it comes to people in Knox County who would like to live in a genuine antebellum house, and people who are willing to pay to live in one, there's much bigger demand than supply. People actually contact me, thinking I can line them up with one.  

Trent says tearing the house down was illegal, and by this non-lawyer's reading of the 1989 Tennessee state law 7-51-1201, as a house constructed before 1865, with some historic significance and in reparable condition, it should not have been torn down "unless the county or municipal legislative body, as provided in this part, approves by majority vote such demolition."

You can still tear down all the antebellum houses you want to, you just need to get the permission of the local legislative body, in this case Knox County Commission. 

The county issued a demolition permit without funneling it to Commission. To be fair to county administrators, this is such a rare circumstance that it's not surprising they didn't know about the 23-year-old law. 

After all, this is the first time in 30 years that anybody has torn down a known antebellum house in Knox County. 

But it comes with a very small fine. The fines attached for breaking the law are usually less than the legal consultation. 

Not many people can say they'll miss it. It was well off the beaten path, along Huffaker Ferry Road. I'd seen it up close only once. I can't claim this loss is personal, except that when people ask me how many antebellum houses exist in Knox County--you'd be surprised, that question comes around pretty regularly--it was one of the ones on my very short, and now shorter, list. 

One of its claims to fame was that it was a shooting scene starring Robert Preston in the 1963 movie All the Way Home. In fact, they say that was the occasion when the old ferry sank. 

I never proved whether this house was the childhood home of aviation pioneer Edward Huffaker, who was born somewhere at least pretty near there in 1856, when this house was about 20 years old. Though they didn't get along with him personally during their weeks together at Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers had studied the older Huffaker's theories and diagrams before they finally found a design that took a man aloft in the first powered flight. 

It's hard to prove some things in the countryside, but if Edward Huffaker didn't live in that house, he was close kin to the people who did. I've imagined Huffaker inspired by this topography, the hills where you can watch birds in flight, and river bottomland that draws more breeze than you get in the hollers. 

People habitually exaggerate the age of historic houses. Enthusiastic new homeowners often boast that their house "probably goes back to the Civil War." Hardly any actually do. 

In 1860, Knox County was home to about 23,000 people. The county supported perhaps 5,000 houses. Today there may be fewer than 30 of those houses still standing. 

Our experience with Hovis underscores the necessity of laws and guidelines for dealing with historic property. Property tends to turn over every few years.

A law already in place--the law of averages--suggests that every single historic house and building will one day be owned by someone who doesn't give much of a poop about it. Whether by inheritance or some speculative acquisition spree, they got it. They'll knock it down, or just let it rot, and shrug and go watch some TV. This is how we erase our history. 

People of the distant future may hear about our claims that we had the right to do so.

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