One of their own

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

Earlier this month, alarm bells sounded within the small, increasingly skittish world of Texas historic preservationists when they learned that city officials in Waxahachie were planning to raze eight shotgun houses that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The houses, whose owners live in Dallas, have become a den of criminal activity that has plagued Waxahachie cops and nearby residents for nearly 10 years. Because their efforts to persuade the absentee owners to improve the property have repeatedly failed, city officials determined in January that they had no choice but to call in the wrecking crews.

Any decision to demolish historic properties invariably is met with resistance from preservationists, who have learned to be diplomatic when they negotiate fragile compromises between city officials and the often indifferent owners of historic properties that fall into disrepair. But Waxahachie officials are now discovering how diplomacy evaporates when preservationists are in the uncomfortable position of protecting one of their own.

In Dallas, Mamie McKnight is widely known as the city's leading expert on African-American history. She is the founder of Black Dallas Remembered Inc., a nonprofit agency that chronicles local African-American history, and she is the chairwoman of the Dallas Landmark Commission, the agency that oversees the city's preservation efforts. Just this month, Gov. George W. Bush appointed McKnight to serve on the state's most powerful preservation agency: the Texas Historical Commission.

Preservationists say that as news of the impending demolition spread across the state, they were "aghast" when they learned that the homes' owner is Elza McKnight, Mamie McKnight's husband. Together, the couple is now trying to arrange bank loans and financing for a plan to restore the properties, according to a report they presented to the city on May 5, a move that helped earn them a temporary reprieve from demolition.

But the delay has done little to relieve the tension mounting between preservationists and city officials, who suspect the McKnights used their political connections in Austin to try to force the city to abandon its plans to demolish the houses. The trouble peaked late last month, when city officials received a letter from the state's leading preservation officer, F. Lawerence Oaks, executive director of the Texas Historical Commission. The letter suggested that future federal funds for historic preservation projects might be cut off if the city demolishes the McKnights' properties.

Oaks says his letter was simply meant to inform city officials about federal preservation laws affecting the McKnights' property, but Waxahachie police officer Nathan Bickerstaff, who has coordinated the city's efforts to clean up the shotgun homes, says the message from the governor's office came through loud and clear.

"They were threatening us," Bickerstaff says. "No city wants their federal funding cut off."

Over the years, Mamie McKnight--and, to a lesser degree, Elza--has regularly appeared in news articles or in the society pages, where she is found discussing black history or accepting some award for her volunteer work. In 1994, she won the Dallas business community's prestigious Willow Award for her work in preserving black landmarks. But when she is asked to discuss the shotgun houses, which have been in her husband's family for years, McKnight grows unusually silent.

"I'd rather not make a comment right now. Thank you," says McKnight, who hung up the telephone when recently contacted for this story.

Likewise, preservationists in Waxahachie and Dallas are reluctant to discuss the McKnights' plans for the property, some saying privately they are afraid that any negative comments they would make might upset the couple and spoil the efforts to save the houses, causing a good chunk of African-American history to be lost forever.

Judy Cross, the vice chairwoman of Historic Waxahachie Inc., a nonprofit agency that is working with the city to save the properties, chooses her words very carefully when trying to describe the trouble brewing between the preservationists, the McKnights, and city officials.

"It's a really touchy situation," she says.

Located 30 miles south of Dallas, Waxahachie is home to five historic districts, and the city's love affair with its own history is evident along West Main Street, where visitors entering the shady, placid city are greeted by rows of majestic Victorian and Georgian Revival mansions. In the center of downtown, the Ellis County Courthouse is cloaked in scaffolding as workers painstakingly return the 1896 structure to its original grandeur--the project is part of Gov. Bush's initiative to save the state's courthouses.

Keep going on Main Street, just a couple of blocks past downtown, and the housing stock grows considerably smaller as you enter Waxahachie's east side, which has historically been and still is home to many of the city's African-American residents. There on Wyatt Street, the McKnights' shotgun houses stand in a row; the narrow, wooden frames lean and twist on their foundations while fresh plywood boards cover the doors and windows.

The houses, built in the early part of the century, were home to cotton-pickers whose labor once drove Waxahachie's economy. They were nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Today, a new chain-link fence surrounds the properties. On Wednesday, May 5, city officials gave the McKnights a week to secure the properties and, on the following Tuesday afternoon, the boards and fence were hastily installed.

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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