Even though the Battle House has long stood silent, the 1928 home – purchased by the Grove Park Inn in 2000 — continues to make noise in the adjacent residential neighborhood.
The city’s Historic Resources Commission has recommended the grand stone structure, long home to WLOS-TV, for historic-landmark designation. All that’s needed is for Council to approve the designation, which brings with it a roughly $4,300 property-tax credit.
Trouble is, the Grove Park Inn says it no longer wants the designation.
The announcement, made by a development consultant representing the inn at Council’s Aug. 5 work session, caught commission members by surprise. Land-planning and development consultant Gerald Green said WLOS had altered the property too much for it to still be considered historically important.
“It is no longer significant, nor does it represent the period,” Green told Council. Restoring the building to its original state, he added, would cost too much. As it stands, the structure would qualify for a smaller tax break from the city, but it would need a full renovation in order to land a larger tax credit.
According to GPI Public Relations Manager Phil Werz, the inn requested the designation in 2001. Historic Resources Commission Director Stacy Merten, however, maintains that the HRC initiated the request (though the inn paid for the study to support it).
Green also opined that granting the designation with the home in its present condition could “set a bad precedent and could compromise the entire [historic-preservation] program.”
Grove Park Inn President Craig Madison sat in at the meeting but did not speak for the Inn, leaving it to Green, a former Asheville city planner, to address Council.
Merten told Council that all but two on the 14-member body had voted to endorse the designation (two members abstained from voting).
The commission’s draft report also notes that the city Planning and Development Department has recommended the designation to support the property’s use as a buffer between the Grove Park Inn’s continuing expansion plans and the surrounding upscale neighborhood.
But Merten also noted that historic-landmark status would not prevent the Grove Park Inn from tearing the place down (though it would require waiting a full year before proceeding).
Construction of the home began in 1927 and was completed a year later. The stately residence was owned by socialite Jane Hyde Hall Liddell Battle.
Merten maintains that the Tudor Revival-style house is historically significant as the only known example in Asheville of the work of New York architect Warrington G. Lawrence. WLOS bought it in 1954 and made significant renovations and additions during its nearly 50-year tenure, as well as paving over much of the surrounding property for parking.
Those changes are central to Green’s contention that the home’s historic importance has been compromised.
“The costs are so extensive to bring it back to its original appearance that it is economically not feasible,” said Green. The designation, however, would not require the inn to proceed with such a restoration.
Merten, meanwhile, argued that the WLOS connection is also historically significant, because the property’s former owner was the area’s first television station.
Green mentioned letters he’d received from the state Historic Preservation Office expressing doubts about the designation because of the drastic changes made to the house. (This is also noted in the commission’s report.)
And though the whole discussion was brief, it was not without emotion. In his rebuttal of Green’s statements, HRC member (and preservation engineer) Bill Wescott asserted that only about two-thirds of what Green said was true. Green quickly stood and heatedly declared: “I resent that. … I want to say that for the record.”
Wescott and Green were later seen arguing in the hallway.
Council member Holly Jones asked if there’s a precedent for withdrawing a request for historic-landmark designation once it has been made.
City Attorney Bob Oast was unsure about that, but he did say that such requests have been made in the past without the property-owner’s approval.
In November, Council approved landmark designation for two other buildings owned by the Grove Park Inn — the clubhouse and the Bynum House (the latter purchased the year before the Battle House). During that public hearing, some expressed disapproval that the inn would receive tax breaks on the properties.
The inn’s acquisition of both properties sparked controversy, particularly after word circulated that one or both might be demolished.
And for now, at least, it’s uncertain when the matter will come back before Council for a vote. The HRC and the Grove Park Inn have agreed to submit a new report to the state Preservation Office, offering additional arguments for the landmark designation.
Asked about any plans the inn might have for the property, spokesperson Phil Werz responded, “We can’t make plans when its future is in the hands of seven people (City Council),” in an e-mail to Xpress.
Protecting Pack Square
In a related matter, Council heard a presentation by Pack Square Conservancy board Chair Carol King recommending guidelines for new construction around Pack Square — including a project being considered by the Grove Park Inn. Although King mentioned the hostelry only in passing, it’s no secret that the GPI is exploring the possibility of constructing two buildings on what is now public property around the square and City/County Plaza.
In March, Council approved a controversial 16-page agreement with the Grove Park Inn indicating a willingness to consider selling city-owned property around Pack Square as the potential site for a pair of high-rises featuring a mix of condos, offices and shops. Two sites are under consideration.
The nonprofit conservancy is independent of the city, although Mayor Charles Worley was appointed by Council to serve on the board. The suggested guidelines (which would also apply to some privately owned land around the square) address such matters as blending with existing architectural styles, placement of structures, and building height.
The recommended height restrictions vary depending on a structure’s placement within the square (the conservancy seems prepared to allow new construction in four different spots). In one location, a building could not be taller than the first setback on the Buncombe County Courthouse. In another, the maximum height would be that of the Biltmore Building, designed by acclaimed architect I.M. Pei.
And even though no vote was scheduled for the work session, the proposed rules nonetheless caused a stir.
Council member Carl Mumpower, while maintaining that he had no opinion one way or the other, wondered whether undue restriction would discourage business development.
“Some people have expressed concern that [such guidelines] can limit the economic viability of a site,” Mumpower said. Why, he asked, did the conservancy choose specific structures, such as the 15-story Jackson Building, as indicators of maximum height?
King responded that, in the process of gathering input from stakeholders, developers and the public, she’d heard requests for a height limit ranging from ground level (i.e. no construction at all) to the height of the Empire State Building (i.e. no restrictions at all). And in response to a later question, King said the conservancy had taken the language in its recommendations from the city’s agreement with the Grove Park Inn.
The issue will come back before Council for a vote at the Aug. 13 formal session.
Calling all citizens
The city is still accepting applications to serve on the following boards and commissions: the Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance Committee, the Planning and Zoning Commission, and the Tourism Development Authority. All applications must be received by 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 15. For application forms or more information, call 259-5601.