Written by Justin D. Sanders
At 8:45pm last Wednesday I geared up for my favorite guilty pleasure—American Idol. I sat down on the sofa and noticed a missed call on my cell phone from Lori Ann, a local high school teacher with whom I’d been working on a restoration project. I found this odd as we had spoken a few hours earlier. I was still excited from the news she had shared with me earlier that evening.
I’ve been working with Lori Ann, and fellow teacher Amy, for a little over a year. Some of their students had discovered a lost treasure in the old Erwin (Tennessee) Municipal Building. A performance theater filled the second floor of this 1923 building; and while time and neglect had shadowed its former beauty, the essence of the place was still there. Amy’s Key Club students felt it only right to attempt to restore this piece of town history. Others joined from the Unicoi County High School’s theater program and the library’s Teen Advisory Group. The students quickly gained support of the school board, local government, and members of the community. The group and the project were reaching critical mass, planning fundraisers and community events, and recently beginning an oral history project to raise awareness of the building’s rich history.
So it was no surprise that I was still ecstatic when she called earlier that evening to tell me another group of students had adopted the Theater Restoration Project as its focus for the community Earth Day celebration. The students, who recognized the importance of reusing historic buildings, wanted to highlight what they called “recycling on the largest scale,” with proceeds from admissions to go to the restoration effort. I assumed she had more information, so I quickly returned her phone call.
Then, everything changed. I learned that a fire had started in the municipal building and was quickly spreading. I rushed out of my apartment and made my way towards Erwin. The calls from teachers, friends, and others started flooding my phone. At this point, the story had made it to the news media, and the images were bad. When I crested a hill entering the downtown historic district, the sight I was greeted with made my jaw drop. Flames had reached the roof of the four-story building and were at least another 15 feet in the air.
I rushed to find Amy and Lori Ann, and was met with a sea of people—mostly students, with tears in their eyes watching this project which they were so passionate about light up the sky. At that moment, the tears came for me as well. I watched the walls crumble as fire crews fought the blaze, and was told I had just missed the sound of the heavy balcony falling.
In that moment, it was easy to think that all of the past year’s work was lost. What I learned, however, is that you should never count out the determination of teenagers with a passion. Students came up to us saying that the project was bigger than one building. One student had tracked down the town mayor and asked him what other vacant building in downtown they could restore for use as a performing arts space. And another student added that “we’ll come back even bigger and better than before.”
The community of Erwin lost a venue rich with history, where music performances, countless dramas, and graduations were held. They lost a physical representation of a community rallying for a cause. But my hope is that what was gained, defiance and a resolve to move forward, will far outweigh that loss.
Justin D. Sanders is the Preservation Field Services Representative for Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia
News reports on the fire:
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