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Erasing History

Demolition planned for Nineteenth Century Club.

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More than a century of Midtown history will soon be obliterated with the swiftness of a wrecking ball.

In January, Liang Lin and wife Xiao Dan Chen won the bid on the historic house at 1433 Union, which was home to the Nineteenth Century Club philanthropic women’s group for years. The couple, which owns several Asian restaurants across the city, has plans to tear down the Colonial Revival-style mansion.

Preservationists believe the couple will build a shopping center with an Asian restaurant there. Attempts to reach the couple were unsuccessful. The couple owns New Hunan Restaurant on Park, Kublai Khan Crazy Mongolian Stir Fry in Southaven, and Red Fish Sushi Asian Bistro in Lakeland.

“Now we have no choice but to get out there and let people know what they’re trying to do. Hopefully, we can make them reconsider and sell the property back to another bidder,” said Gordon Alexander of the Midtown Action Coalition, which is holding protests outside the property this week.

“If they tear this building down and build a strip mall, they’re probably going to go out of business within six months because three-quarters of the community will not set foot in that establishment,” Alexander said.

The couple’s attorney, Linda Mathis, with Union Group LLC, appeared in Environmental Court on Monday to answer to anti-neglect charges against the property.

Judge Larry Potter asked the attorney to present a plan for demolition by July 9th and ordered that no demolition plan can be carried out until that plan has been approved.

“We are losing something we never regain. I do not think it’s a wise decision to demolish this building,” Potter told the courtroom. “But frankly, that doesn’t matter. If there were legal means for me to stop this, I would.”

The mansion was built in 1907 by lumber magnate Rowland Darnell, and it’s the last remaining historic home on Union that has maintained its original floor plan. A 2009 Architecture Inc. study of the repairs that would need to be done to renovate the deteriorating home came up with a $1.2 million price tag, but that went above and beyond the repairs needed to bring the building up to code.

“Code enforcement would have been satisfied if we had invested about $425,000 to fix everything to the point where no further damage could occur,” said Heather Corey, the Nineteenth Century Club’s former vice president for restoration. Corey left the organization after the club chose not to undertake a fund-raising campaign for repairs.

After the club was unsuccessful at selling the property for $1.5 million, Dick Hackett, former Memphis mayor and executive director of the Children’s Museum of Memphis, suggested the club auction the property.

Although preservationists Diane Dixon and Larry Clark put in a bid with hopes of salvaging the mansion, a representative for Lin and Chen had the winning bid. The dissolving Nineteenth Century Club organization gave the $550,000 from the auction of the property to the Children’s Museum.

Memphis Heritage has been attempting to raise awareness about the importance of preserving the Nineteenth Century Club for at least three years, said executive director June West. But Memphis Heritage currently does not have the budget to invest in troubled properties.

“Memphis Heritage is trying to raise $3 million for a fund called the New Century Fund, and we would become a funding agency for historic properties,” West said. “Twenty years ago, if we had this money in place, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

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