Jenkins House At Stones River Destroyed For Development

By Deborah Fitts

 

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Owners of one of the few remaining structures that witnessed the bloody battle of Stones River destroyed the antebellum landmark June 10 to make way for development. The home was razed just three days before a grassroots group that was formed to save it was to discuss preservation options with city officials.

“We were just devastated,” said Kay Morrow, who headed the Save the Jenkins House Preservation Group. “It was a piece of history we’ll never get back. We were heartbroken. We were sick.”

Behind Union lines, the two-story Hiram Jenkins House was pressed into service as a field hospital early in the battle of Stones River Dec. 31, 1862-Jan. 2, 1863. Later in the battle Confederates under Gen. Patrick Cleburne drove the Federals from the grounds and captured the house, but Union surgeons continued to work side-by-side with their Southern counterparts.

The striking 1853 home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its architectural significance. Considered a superior example of the blending of Greek Revival and Italianate styles, it featured a soaring two-story columned portico, which was flanked by columned porches on either side topped by railed balconies. The 11.5-acre property lies nearly a mile west of the boundary of Stones River National Battlefield.

“It was a beautiful home,” said Park Ranger John McKay. “It was one of the last true hospital houses, and when people came to visit the battlefield I would point it out to them.” Of its loss he said, “I think it’s sickening.”

McKay said that six weeks before it was razed he had gone to the abandoned house to take photographs and discovered a plastic gasoline jug and evidence of a fire that had scorched part of the building and shrubbery.

Morrow and other supporters of the Jenkins House found out after it was razed that owners Roy Yeager, former drummer for the rock band Atlanta Rhythm Section, and his partner Char Fontane had obtained a demolition permit in April.

The pair purchased the Gresham Lane house in 1993 and for several years used the home’s gracious Southern ambiance to run a business hosting weddings. “It was costly, and they didn’t keep up repairs,” Morrow said. The pair eventually tried to give the house away, approaching the battlefield park, among others.

“They broached the idea of donating it to us,” acknowledged Gib Backlund, the park’s director of operations. “But we didn’t have the ability to accept it. I don’t know what we could have done.” The battlefield is confined to its authorized 709-acre boundary.

Park Ranger Jim Lewis said he had spoken to Yeager several times over the years. “In the beginning he was gung-ho, but I think he just got worn down” by the relentless tide of development, Lewis said.

Murfreesboro’s rapid growth, including the construction a couple of years ago of the Medical Center Parkway near the home, may have doomed it. Although the parkway is yet to be developed, local officials are planning major commercial projects.

Still, Morrow, whose home is near the Jenkins House site, jumped into action in February when she spotted a for-sale sign in the yard. Her group of two dozen supporters gathered a petition with 300 names that they hoped would convince city officials to save the house.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Tennessee Preservation Trust placed the Jenkins House on its annual list of 10 most endangered historic properties in the state. It turned out to be too late.

“A bulldozer went through it within six days of our listing,” said Patrick McIntyre, the trust’s executive director.

“We tried to work with the owners a couple of years ago, but they were simply unwilling to look at the options,” said McIntyre. He said in the days before the house was bulldozed he received several phone calls from individuals interested in saving it.

The Jenkins House was not the only battle witness to be lost recently. The home that served as headquarters for Gen. Leonidas Polk was destroyed by arson in 2003, just days after interest was expressed in saving it. Still standing, however (and still in the same family as at the time of the battle), is Elmwood, the Hord family home, a brick mansion that served as a Union hospital.

Also standing is the Widow Burris House, although it lacks its original integrity; the McGregor House, which witnessed cavalry operations; and the McCulloch House, headquarters for Confederate corps commander Gen. William Hardee. Park Ranger Lewis said the McCulloch House was “in pretty high jeopardy” of being torn down next.

Morrow said Murfreesboro officials have bought into the benefits of development. “They don’t seem to care about history.” She said her group would now join forces with the Friends of Stones River Battlefield in hopes of saving other threatened properties.

Lewis lamented that at Murfreesboro, “Time is not on the side of preservation.” With only 15 percent of the battlefield protected by the park, the few battle witnesses like the Jenkins House added importantly to the story, he said.

“It’s a huge loss for us. It was a wonderful-looking antebellum home. Places like the Jenkins House allow you in some small measure to anchor the Civil War history.”

McIntyre, of the Tennessee Preservation Trust, said Murfreesboro compares unfavorably with more enlightened communities like Franklin, Tenn., where local officials have recently taken extraordinary steps to preserve their Civil War history.

“You have 200,000 people a year coming to visit the Stones River battlefield,” McIntyre pointed out, “and now you’ve lost one of the few remaining landmarks associated with the battle.

“There are enough gas stations and fried chicken shops in Murfreesboro, and the next big shopping center will close in 10 or 15 years, but heritage tourism has no expiration date. This was a beautiful house; there are no other Civil War houses of this magnitude.

“Everybody would say that Murfreesboro needs to do a much better job of treating its historic landscape with respect.”