The Heights

Design contest casts vision for renovation and reuse of historic church at risk for demolition

[Author Leigh Tatum is a resident of Highland Heights and a High Ground News Community Correspondent. Correspondents are everyday people trained in the basics of neighborhood-based reporting who have deep roots to the communities they cover.]
“The uncertain future of one of the architecturally most beautiful buildings in the neighborhood was one of the main reasons that we were interested in it. It’s played a very prominent role in the neighborhood for more than a century.” -- Dane Forlines, Heights CDC special projects director. 

How do you inspire the public’s imagination and invigorate private investment to save a threatened historic landmark? Hold a contest.

On March 20, the Heights Community Development Corp announced the winner of its design contest to cast a new vision for reuse of the Highland Heights United Methodist Church. The property includes multiple buildings on three acres at the northwest corner of Summer Avenue and Highland Street. 

Mario Walker, architect with Self + Tucker, won first prize and $1000 with his eye-catching design.

He proposed co-living apartments with shared kitchen, living rooms, and rooftop pool but private bedroom and bathrooms.

The building's new exterior would create a strong visual contrast; its existing brick would be painted a warm white and paired it with new black steel projections and lighting on the bell tower, which would also be raised.

“Buildings like Heights UMC were dreamt, drafted, built, and placed in service for the purpose of edifying the local community. In this case, lives were literally changed upon its foundations! These spaces should be preserved, protected and repurposed to continue to better the lives of its users,” said Walker. 
Mario Walker's winning design incorporates Highland Heights United Methodist Church's existing structure with new elements like black steel projections and lighting on the bell tower, which would also be raised. (Rendering by Mario Walker, architect)
Ironically, Highland Heights UMC got its start in a co-living, multi-purpose space. According to Joe Walk’s History of Highland Heights, it was built in the late 1890s and known simply as the Community Building. When the congregation that would become Highland Heights UMC first met in the Community Building, it was already serving as a boarding house, school, community meeting hall, and home to the Highland Heights Baptist Church. 

In his proposal Walker said, “Organized co-living is a new model that responds to increased debt, high housing costs, and a desire to offset expenses. Cost-effective and flexible; it allows tenants to rent sleeping rooms in larger scale apartment units.” 

Applicants were scored by a panel of judges including Heights residents, former members of the church, professional architects, and staff from the Heights CDC.

The first and second prize winners' scores were separated by just one point. Both combine old and new construction and propose mixed uses that incorporate office, retail, and residential space in the current education building, as well as event space in the sanctuary.

Second place winners Cameron McLemore and Andrea Jimenez include a travel plaza to promote outdoor gathering and a mixed-use addition connected to the current education building. Bob McCabe—an artist and retired architect and city planner— won third prize for his proposed senior and assisted living design. 

On Saturday, March 20, Heights CDC hosted an event to showcase the winners and engage guests in a community clean-up. The competition is the latest of the nonprofit organization's efforts to advocate for the historic property.

“We wanted to just showcase the possibilities for adaptively reusing the existing structures and hopefully spark the imagination of someone who might want to invest in the property that would be both a benefit to the developer but also something that would be a benefit to the community," said Dane Forlines, Heights CDC's special projects director. 

“The uncertain future of one of the architecturally most beautiful buildings in the neighborhood was one of the main reasons that we were interested in it," Forlines added. "It’s played a very prominent role in the neighborhood for more than a century.”
Artist and retired architect and city planner Bob McCabe won third prize in the competition to imagine new uses for the historic Highland Heights United Methodist Church. The contest was run by Heights CDC. (Emily Holmes, Heights CDC)
Highland Heights United Methodist Church closed in 2020 after serving for 106 years as a center for community in The Heights. Rafat and Talaat Khmous bought the property.

At an intersection that already has gas stations on two of its four corners, the new owners planned to demolish the historic structures to build yet another gas station and retail space.

Christina Crutchfield, Heights CDC's community coordinator, rallied public support to save the buildings by creating a petition on and Facebook page. In just one week, there were over 4,000 signatures on the petition and 400 followers on the Facebook page.

“It’s not just tearing down a building, it’s very much tearing down a piece of the story that people can identify with,” said Crutchfield in a January 2020 High Ground article chronicling community partnerships to prevent historic churches from being razed.

Concerned citizens and local leaders then met to discuss options and continue advocating for the property’s reuse. In response to the strong showing of community support, Memphis City Council passed a resolution that hauled demolition permits for churches over 50 years old for 180 days. The same resolution and asked the Office of Planning and Development to provide guidance on relevant zoning rules and options for change.

This action bought time and eventually resulted in the property being re-zoned; it is no longer an option to build a gas station on the site.

The zoning change alone cannot prevent demolition of the beautiful, historic property. It is for sale again and its new owner could still choose to replace it with new construction.

The Heights CDC design competition generated eight bold new designs in total. Prospective buyers can use those ideas to help them visualize possibilities for the existing building and spur them toward reuse and rebirth of Highland Heights United Methodist Church.

But will they?

[Correction notice: This story previously stated that the January 2020 High Ground News article was in referenced to the Highland Heights United Methodist Church. That article's focus was Highland Heights Baptist Church.]
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Leigh Tatum is a behavioral health consultant with a M.S. in social work. She is a resident of The Heights and graduate of the first High Ground News Community Correspondents program.