One of their own

Historical preservationists can't believe who's responsible for letting eight historic houses crumble to the brink of demolition

If the McKnights can find money to restore the houses, they've told city officials, they plan to use one as a police storefront and turn another into a museum dedicated to Elza McKnight's aunt, Maggie Broomfield, a longtime Waxahachie resident whose husband built the houses, according to the McKnights. The McKnights plan to rent out the remaining six houses to senior citizens or single parents at low cost.

While the McKnights didn't include a cost estimate in their report, city officials say the couple is trying to secure $250,000 through bank loans and grants for the project. Because the houses are appraised at just $18,000 all together, Waxahachie City Manager Bob Sokoll says he is skeptical.

"It's the city that's going to wind up with the black eye," says Sokoll, who is clearly irritated that Waxahachie has come under attack by the preservation community.

"It has never been the intent of the city of Waxahachie to go in and destroy historic structures," he says. "The bottom line is, everything is on hold, and the ball is in the owners' court. All we're waiting on is more than lip service, and that is all we've gotten."

While Mamie McKnight declined to discuss what efforts she and her husband have taken over the years to maintain the structures, correspondence between city officials and the McKnights reveals that the houses have suffered from nearly a decade of neglect.

In August 1990, after receiving a complaint about the property, city inspectors declared a house at 300 Wyatt Street unfit for human habitation. In addition to discovering electrical problems, the inspectors found that the house's water heater violated city codes, among other health and safety violations, while there were "severe" problems with the house's structure. Although the city then recommended the house be demolished, the action was delayed for months as letters the city sent to the McKnights requesting information about their plans for the property went unanswered.

Last January, members of the city's Project Sweep team, a group of city inspectors and police officers given the job of cleaning up dilapidated properties, again inspected the houses and determined that they were still in "substandard" condition. Afterward, Bickerstaff wrote Elza McKnight requesting permission to demolish the houses or, in the alternative, indicated the city's intent to file suit against McKnight under the state's "public nuisance" law.

If city officials can demonstrate that three or more criminal offenses have occurred at a single address, the law allows them, along with the Texas Attorney General's Office, to sue the property owner in municipal court for the right to demolish the properties.

Seated behind a metal desk inside the Waxahachie police department, Bickerstaff thumbs through an inch-thick stack of police reports that documents 10 years' worth of police visits to the McKnights' property. Since 1992, Bickerstaff says, police logged more than 60 offenses at the properties, ranging from drug sales to assaults, including a stabbing and a drive-by shooting.

"Just in the last two months, we've probably had over 200 calls over there," says Bickerstaff, who led the Project Sweep team. While the houses have long spelled trouble for police, Bickerstaff says the city had little luck getting the McKnights to respond to their concerns until he threatened them with demolition. "Then [Elza] said we couldn't tear them down because they're nationally registered."

Bickerstaff says he has little patience for what he sees as a code-enforcement issue being turned into a game of politics. In February, shortly after the city decided to raze the properties, Bickerstaff wrote a letter to the Texas Historical Commission explaining the city's decision.

"Mr. McKnight, using the excuse that these dilapidated properties are protected by their historical significance, has thwarted the City's attempts to have these properties brought up to code," Bickerstaff wrote. "Even though these mostly vacant properties have been falsely protected by some historical significance, no efforts by the owner or any historical preservation group have to date been undertaken."

A month later, Oaks responded to Bickerstaff's letter in a two-page letter of his own, in which he encouraged Bickerstaff to support the McKnights' preservation effort, even though the couple had not yet supplied the city with restoration plans of any kind.

"We strongly recommend that the City make all possible efforts to support its preservation," Oaks wrote to Bickerstaff in a letter dated April 28, 1999. "The THC has been given to understand that some City officials may not understand the directives of the National Historic Preservation Act and related legislation that require the City to seriously consider its actions in regard to federal funding and projects that may affect historic properties."

Oaks says he wrote the letter because he believed that city officials were planning to use federal funds to demolish the property, and that would amount to a violation of the act. When asked to specify which federal funds he meant, however, Oaks isn't sure.

"We're still a little bit at a loss as to the nature of the federal undertaking," Oaks says. "We just assumed there is some kind of federal involvement."

For now, Bickerstaff says the McKnights have 120 days to make substantial improvements to the property. If they do not, he intends to resume the demolition procedure.

While Oaks downplays the political row the McKnight houses are creating, one preservationist says McKnight's gubernatorial appointment just goes to show you how thinly dressed our leaders can be.

"She's gotten all this stuff with no clothes on. Just like the emperor.

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