What We Lost, and Gained, in the Fire

Posted on: April 15th, 2009 by Guest Writer 14 Comments

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.

Our first visit to the site in April 2008.

Our first visit to the site in April 2008.

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.

Flames ravage the historic 1923 building.

Flames ravage the historic 1923 building.

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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14 Responses

  1. Crystal Ketron

    April 15, 2009

    Way to go on writing this piece it is very detailed. I like it sorry to hear about the fire though but you are right may bigger and better things come out of this for the students that were involved.

  2. Michael Briggs

    April 15, 2009

    I was saddened by the great loss of this historic building until I heard about Lori Ann and Amy’s students. These amazing young people represent an even richer treasure for Erwin and Unicoi County than the old Municipal Building. They are the future, and tonight I am happier for our future because of these students.

  3. Mark A. Stevens

    April 15, 2009

    It’s easy for many people to dismiss today’s youth, but the students who led the movement to restore this historic broke any negative stereotypes. I’ve seen these students and their teachers in action, and they are always fantastic. The focus of their attention may have been lost in the flames last week, but I doubt their enthusiasm has been extinguished. I’m proud of them, and I belief their efforts would have someday been successful. I hope these students know how proud I am of them for thinking big and dreaming even bigger. I hope they can find another project to put their immense enthusiasm behind. — Mark A. Stevens, Publisher, The Erwin Record

  4. Pat Barraclough

    April 15, 2009

    Have been fortunate to be working with Justin, Lori Ann, Amy, and the students on this project. It has been gratifying to see the enthusiasm and work the students have put into it. The restoration of the facility would have been a great asset for the community. The students are already brainstorming and I am certain they will come up with a creative extension of the original project. The community is fortunate to have all these forward thinking individuals. I hope they will be encouraged and supported as this project moves forward.

  5. Brad Williams

    April 16, 2009

    It has been my privelege to work with both Lori Ann and Amy as colleagues and to teach some of the same dedicated, passionate students. This project was, and will remain, one of the heart; it is more than merely restoring an old building. I know the determination of the two teachers and their students and I also know that the dream to create an historic venue in downtown Erwin is still very much alive. I feel that in the loss of the municipal building, we gained a deeper drive and passion as a community to see this project come to fruition. “Forward, March!”
    Brad Williams – Director of Bands, Unicoi County High School

  6. Dustin Tolley

    April 16, 2009

    You couldn’t have written this any better. My heart dropped into my stomach when i heard the news. All I could think of was all the effort we, as students, and everyone else had given towards bringing that building back to life and how LoriAnn must be feeling. We can’t stop here though, we need to keep going and try to find somewhere else we could use to show our talents.

  7. Jonathan Wilkins

    April 16, 2009

    I am astonished with the beauty of this historic building. It could’ve served as an auditorium(if you will), for talent. Although I have never visited the inside, the picture says it all.

  8. Samantha Townsend

    April 16, 2009

    When I first found out that we had an old stage theatre in our little town I was so happy. Then when Mrs. Wright told us that she was going to try and rebuild it, I wanted to do everything I could to help restore it. When I was at home, I herd over my radio that there was a building on fire down in Erwin I did not even begin to think that it was the one that we were repairing. I am a fire fighter and I was there at the fire trying to put it out. When we had final put out the fire and we realized that we had lost it, it broke my heart. All of the hard work that we all did in drama was lost. I could not even move when I was told that the damage was non repairable. I hope that we can still save something in our town that means a lot to this town. I have faith that we will and we will never forget about the old town theatre.

  9. Amanda Arwood

    April 16, 2009

    The theater restoration project was so much more than just a project to us. It was something that we could claim as ours. A place where we, our drama family, belonged. We had accomplished so much for this restoration, and its so hard not to be able to see the end product of our work. But we will not give in, and we will keep working. I am so proud to say that I was part of Unicoi County High School Drama and the theater restoration project.

  10. Cecilia Johnson

    April 16, 2009

    The minute you see a building catch on fire, you realize a piece of history has just faded away. The minute you see a building that you have been working on all year burn down, a piece of your heart fades away. It hit me all at once, I felt like I failed the community, and that I let everyone down. Though I knew it wasn’t my fault, a huge weight fell upon my shoulders to worry about my teachers, classmates, and random people in the community that had helped put so much heart and soul into this project. I can’t fix what has happened but I know for a fact that my community has high hopes for us to start off of a clean slate, and build a beautiful place for entertainment. I’m ready when you are 😉

  11. Mandie Rice

    April 16, 2009

    When I first heard about the fire I had just woke up from a nap as I usual do and I heard that the building the drama department which I am in was burned down I was so up set I just didn’t know what do to I just hope and pray we find another place to build but in that building was already a stage and I bet it was cool but we’ll make a better one and the whole Town of Erwin will love and we will perform the best that we do every time we are on stage. Mrs wright, your the best drama teacher ever!

  12. Cody Lewis

    April 30, 2009

    Phoenix. That’s the words I kept hearing as I watched the history and beauty of a dream disappear into ash.
    It was about 8:15 and I had just closed my Macbook from checking blogs when my phone beeped. It was voicemail from my Publisher, Mark Stevens.
    “The downtown theatre across from the office is on fire. Come as soon as possible.”
    I rushed into downtown, navigating police barriers with my Press Pass and finally getting where I needed.
    By this time the building was engulfed in flames.
    I grabbed a camera from our office, located directly across the street, as Mark ran frantically trying to save anything he could in case the fire spread. I sprinted onto Gay Street, feeling the intense heat from the buidling, my camera click wildly.
    Only was it when I viewed the building threw my camera’s viewfinder that I realized what was lost.
    Beauty. History. A future. It was heartbreaking.
    An oppurtunity like ours comes along very rarely, but when it does its a gift.
    I see the fire as a gift as well.
    A high power saying, “Determination is the key. Show your strength. Show your passion.
    When I finally returned home, I realized that the project would continue…just like a phoenix.

  13. Lori Ann Wright

    May 13, 2009

    It has been a little more than a month since the fire and I think I finally found a way to express my feelings about the theatre restoration project.I realized the building, to me, represented stories. From the very first conversation involving the theatre restoration, the project has inspired personal stories from everyone in the community. I can’t count the times I heard about a cherished childhood memory of a play, a proud graduation ceremony, or an entertaining show that filled every seat in the house. Isaw people laugh, cry, and struggle deep in thought to reclaim those long forgotten memories.The students understood the importance of this legacy, of these precious stories,and wanted to add their own stories to the history of the arts in our town.They wanted, and still want, to be a part of something lasting that makes a difference in the hometown they love. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to create their own story to add to the legacy-a fine tale of overcoming a tragedy and helping a community unite to complete a powerful project.

  14. beverly

    June 16, 2009

    It was a great idea to want to restore a piece of town history and get kids involved. What a shame about the fire, though. Is it possible to rebuild what was left? Things always happen for a reason, may this just wasn’t the project for you and something else will turn up bigger than ever. You never know.