February 26, 2020 Nancy DeGennaro, The Daily News Journal
The Tennessee Historical Commission has approved a waiver that will allow the Sam Davis Memorial Association to sell a 4-acre parcel of farmland owned by the historic Sam Davis Home in Smyrna.
Sam Davis Home Director Jenny Lamb said the proceeds from the sale would offset the cost of deferred maintenance and much-needed restoration projects at the historic site.
Lamb said selling part of the historic property is a “sad day,” but it’s a “last resort” to solve financial troubles for the association and protect the future for the Sam Davis Home.
“Every single historic structure has a laundry list of maintenance projects that are waiting,” said Lamb, who became director of the historic site in August 2018. “I really think it’s important to be able to take care of … and to be able to preserve and protect what’s left here.”
The 168-acre site was once owned by family of Sam Davis, a Confederate soldier who was hanged by the Union Army in 1863. In 1930, the state of Tennessee purchased the property and opened it for tours under the direction of the SDMA.
The Sam Davis Home and plantation has 15 historic structures on site as well as a modern caretaker’s house, and visitors center and museum shop.
For nearly 100 years, the site has welcomed tourists and educational programs have expanded.
Lamb’s tenure has seen an increase in revenue and visitor numbers, and she believes the site is “moving in the right direction.”
But revenue from admission sales, proceeds from the museum shop and grant monies only cover operating expenses, according to Lamb.
“There’s never been enough in the last decade to cover major restoration projects,” she said. “There are so many restoration projects that we just can’t wait to try to raise revenue funds on our own.”
One of the main concerns is climate control, Lamb explained. The main house does not have a central HVAC system, leaving the interior and its contents subject to the elements.
“We’ve seen such extreme heat and extreme cold that it’s definitely taking its toll on the historic house and collection inside,” Lamb said. Collections in storage also need a climate-controlled space to prevent deterioration, she added.
Narrow approval by state commission
The SDMA decided to seek permission to sell 4 acres of land located at the intersection of Sam Davis Road and Nissan Drive “in order to generate needed funding,” according to the public notice regarding the sale.
In 2019, the SDMA obtained unanimous approval from the Tennessee General Assembly for sale.
Under the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, the approval also required the SDMA to petition the Tennessee Historical Commission for a waiver to accomplish the sale, said Byron Davis, a local attorney and director of the SDMA who presented the petition for the waiver Friday.
The waiver required 19 votes for approval, or two-thirds of the THC members. At first, only 18 voted to approve. In a last-minute change of heart, THC Commissioner Joanne Moore reversed her veto to give the SDMA permission.
Value of land still unclear
The SDMA is still months away from officially putting the land up for sale. Davis said a minimum of 120 days is required before the property can go on the market. And nobody knows how much the association will garner from the sale.
“That’s the question everybody is asking … how much. We don’t really know, we just hope it’s a sizable amount because of the location. It appears to be good commercial property,” Davis said.
The commission was concerned about ensuring the integrity of the historic site. So one of the THC’s stipulations in granting the waiver is a requirement for an adequate visual barrier between the new development and the historic property.
“It’s been on our minds to do the least invasive thing but try to help the site the most,” Davis said. “When you get out of the car, it’s like stepping back 150 years ago and they want to keep that as much as possible. Those types of places are pretty rare in our country.”
Once the maintenance projects are completed, any funds left over would be used to set up accounts to to “make sure we always have revenue coming in” to keep the historic site open, Lamb said.
“I think the process has worked for us … for the betterment of the site,” Davis said.
Reach reporter Nancy DeGennaro at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @NanDeGennaro.