Nearly ten years ago, Tricia Stuth and Ted Shelton—the married co-founders of the architecture firm Curb—set out to build a home in downtown Knoxville. They ended up with roughly three: a trio of attached homes they call the Ghost Houses. Earlier this summer, the American Institute of Architects honored Curb for the project, including it in their 2012 Small Projects Awards, while Dwell profiled the architects in their March 2012 issue. Aside from being a nice little piece of architecture, the Ghost Houses are a fascinating case study in how young Americans are repopulating abandoned downtowns—and the unexpected boons involved in the process.
Set into a half-acre site in a neighborhood that was once served by streetcars, the Ghost Houses are named for three turn-of-the-century bungalows that once stood on roughly the same footprint. When Stuth and Shelton bought the lot, only one remained standing, which they gutted and renovated. To generate income for the project, they rebuilt the homes on either side of the remaining structure, renting one out and incorporating the other into their own living space. From the street, the new structures echo the roof line and silhouette of the old homes. Inside, it’s all white and plywood, with an open plan encourages cross ventilation.
The project is an interesting example of how suburban zoning laws are affecting—and indeed, even preventing—the rehabilitation of inner city areas. The construction process was a long, drawn-out affair, thanks to a zoning law that prevents more than one home on a single piece of property. Knoxville’s downtown was once dense with industrial and commercial activity. Like so many other mid-sized cities, the 60s saw a period of suburban migration, hastened by the Interstate system and the decline of the railroad. The downtown residential neighborhoods were rezoned to suburban stands—one house per lot—in the 80s. But in recent years, renewed interest in walkable (and bikeable) cities has brought young people back to the urban center, where old shotgun houses and bungalows abound.
But the new zoning restrictions are unwittingly preventing homeowners like Stuth and Shelton from restoring neighborhoods to their former density. When the architects decided to rebuild the two bungalows that had been razed in the 80s, they found that (which some local regulators still support) restricted them from doing so. Luckily, as architects, Stuth and Shelton were able to navigate the long process of fighting for approval, though it apparently took five public meetings. But it’s important to bear in mind that not all homeowners might have been so savvy.