Building a brand-new home next to a really old one has challenges

photo Allen and Louise Crowell are building a new home in St. Elmo. Because of the neighborhood's designation on the historic registry, the couple's home must earn approval from the Community Association of Historic St. Elmo.
photo When Stuart and Jonesy Wood built a new garage behind their Ochs Highway home, they had to have the plans for the building approved by the St. Elmo historic committee. The materials on the exterior of the garage, pictured in the background, had to match those on their home.
photo Allen and Louise Crowell had to get numerous permits to build a new home in historic St. Elmo.

Louise and Allen Crowell have built more than 50 homes in and around Middle Tennessee in the past 25 years. They're hardly afraid of dealing with building codes, construction rules and landscaping guidelines in various neighborhoods.

Then they decided to build their own home in St. Elmo.

"It's a heck of a lot harder to build a house here than it has been in any place I've ever built a house," Allen says. "The other houses I've built only required two inspections -- electrical and septic tank."

Not so in St. Elmo. The rules of the Community Association of Historic St. Elmo committee dictate, among other things, what types of windows and doors you can have, what kind of fencing you can install, the proper style of gutters for your house and how to clean or repair your brick or masonry foundations and walls.

"Everything has to be approved upfront and, if it doesn't meet the historic committee's codes, you can't build it," Allen says. "If you do, you'll have to tear it down and they'll stop the construction. I've never dealt with anything like this before, but there's a definite benefit. They don't want us to build a shack."

If you're planning on buying a home or property in an area of Chattanooga that has been designated "historic" -- St. Elmo, Ferger Place, Fort Wood or Battery Place -- you may want to first research guidelines for remodeling or new construction. Rules in these areas can be strict and unyielding.

But anytime someone builds a new home in an old neighborhood -- whether it's officially designated as historic or not -- there's going to be some worry among residents of the area. Those who live in funky Arts and Crafts bungalows with their big front porches, pointy gables and handmade aesthetic or in big Victorians with their ornate gingerbread trim and Addams Family-style accouterments don't always appreciate a hulky, ultra-modern McMansion being plunked down next door. Such situations can create a Not On My Street reaction.

City zoning designations in non-historic districts basically say that you can't drop a warehouse in between two homes in North Chattanooga or build a McDonald's on property zoned for residential in Brainerd. They don't, however, tell you the style of house you can build or how big your house can be -- as long as you keep within your property boundaries and stay within certain distances from the street and your next-door neighbors.

Those worries become even more intense when the area is historic because it's the original features of a building that gives a structure its significance and bring value to not only the home but the neighborhood, says Michael Wyatt, historic preservation planner for the City of Chattanooga.

"Our design guidelines are actually based on what the U.S. Secretary of the Interior has created called the 'Secretary of the Interior's Guidelines for Rehabilitation,' and they stress that original character defining elements, such as doors, windows, wood siding, etc., should be repaired rather than replaced," Wyatt says.

Still, some new owners of older homes aren't so concerned with those elements, he acknowledges. They want what they want for their own reasons.

"When owners ask to remove and replace items like historic windows because they feel like they are energy inefficient or because they want vinyl windows that they won't have to paint, we have to explain that removing the original windows, which are an original historic feature of the old house, actually diminishes the historic integrity of that structure," he says.

Emily Glover, a Realtor at Keller Williams, says she tells potential homeowners upfront about the "rules" of historic neighborhoods. While some clients find the historic areas inviting, others don't.

"I have clients that don't want to live in those areas because they want to do what they want as far as fencing, painting, decorations, etc.," she says. "It's definitely an important factor when buying a home."

In Chattanooga, each of the four established historic districts has a separate set of design guidelines that are tailored toward the appearance of buildings in each area. The design guidelines are posted on Chattanooga's website.

One thing the guidelines don't dictate is what you do inside your home; remodel away, as long as those changes don't affect the way the outside of the house looks. But historic rules will kick in with alterations such as adding a garage, building a fence, changing a roofline or even replacing the windows and doors.

Eddie Piper, a 12-year resident of Ferger Place, says the remodeling/building rules in his historic neighborhood are a good thing. The 69-home, U-shaped neighborhood, located off Main Street, was founded in 1910 and was the first gated community south of the Mason-Dixon line.

"Since I have been here, it has proven to make things more difficult and it has prevented some neighbors from doing something ridiculous," he says. "I think the historic aspect is a positive impact."

But it can get hairy. When he was trying to install new windows in his home, members of the neighborhood historic committee "chased workers off my property one time for not having gone through them," he recalls.

Be prepared

In St. Elmo, the Crowells were aware of the building stipulations. Their son, Stuart Wood, not only lives in St. Elmo, he is a member of neighborhood's historic committee.

"Do your homework before you buy," says Louise.

She grew up in East Ridge but moved out of the Chattanooga area after graduating from college. But at age 62, she was ready to come back home.

Founded in 1878, St. Elmo was a vibrant community but "fell into a state of disrepair by the 1970s," according to the website.

"I remember St. Elmo as being a terrible place," Louise says. "I thought my son was crazy for moving here, but he had a vision. Turns out, he was right. The neighborhood is returning to its original grandeur."

And its historic regulations are making sure that grandeur doesn't get dampened.

Louise says they found the "St. Elmo Historic District Design Review Guidelines" at and those helped them meet the regulations.

"The historic committee is very helpful," she says. "But when you go into a meeting to seek approval for your request, you better have all your eggs in the basket."

Because the Crowells came prepared, the historic committee made just one change to their house plans. Louise had designed shutters for one window on the top floor and one window on the main floor. The committee did not allow shutters on the main floor, but allowed shutters on the top floor but with the stipulation that shutters had to be on all the floor's windows or none at all.

And, even though her son is on the St. Elmo historic committee, he didn't get a free ride when he wanted to build a new garage at his Ochs Highway home in the community. In fact, Stuart Wood says, he probably got a little extra scrutiny.

"The commissioners tend to be especially hard on each other because, if anyone should know the guidelines, it should be us," he says. "The zoning commission liked the feel of the design, definitely wanting the garage to be of the same exterior materials as the original house."

In 2012, Russell and Leah Golden moved into the historic Fort Wood neighborhood, a community annexed by the city in 1851. Their 99-year-old home, "The Milton House," is named after George and Abby Milton; George owned the Chattanooga News and Abby was president of the Tennessee Women's Suffrage League and helped gets the Tennessee Legislature to ratify the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote.

"With such influential people having built our home, we wanted to make sure and renovate it with as much care as possible," Leah says. "We were initially apprehensive, but we spoke with people who had already done renovations and we realized that it wouldn't be that difficult to adhere to the guidelines.

"People think it is going to be this impossible hurdle to overcome, but when it comes down to it, the historic review board just wants to make sure that you aren't doing something completely crazy."


Despite the expense of an extensive renovation, Golden says they have no regrets.

"Russell and I would do it all over again," she says. "We love the character and feel of old homes, and we have gotten used to the unique challenges they present. Our walls are 18 inches thick and the house is just as sound today as when it was built.

"There are always going to be surprises and challenges but, if you approach it with a positive attitude and expect the unexpected, you will end up with a great home that will be a treasure to live in."

Jeffrey Cross, who owns a home in St. Elmo, says an older home has its downsides, but the upside is worth it. His house on was built in 1888 for Thankful Johnson, granddaughter of A.M. and Thankful Johnson, who founded the neighborhood and the Thankful Memorial Episcopal Church, which sits across the street from Cross' home.

His home is about 3,300 square feet with four or five bedrooms and three baths. "The house has 'stick-style' Queen Anne trim and details such as rosettes, beadboard and decorative rafter tails," says Cross, who founded And there are 16 original stained glassed windows.

A home of that size and age can be a handful.

"There are always more projects to do, but overall it is enjoyable and satisfying to live in a unique, irreplaceable example of craftsmanship and materials that simply don't exist anymore," he says.

Cross says some homeowners and builders try to skip out on getting historic committee approval for work, but they're taking a big gamble.

"They might get away with it, but the risks are pretty high -- anything between a stop-work order on a job and being required to literally take something apart," he says.

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at 423-757-6396 or

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