Rising From the Ashes — Literally

There’s finally light at the end of the tunnel for East Nashville funkmeister Todd “Toddzilla” Austin, who lost his house, car, and seven beloved cats when a fire destroyed his Forrest Avenue home last June. After more than seven months of legal wrangling, political posturing, and a petition drive that garnered some 10,000 signatures of support, he has won approval from the Metropolitan Historic Zoning Commission to demolish and rebuild his home in the historic Lockeland Springs neighborhood.
     “Ultimately, we fell backwards over the goal line,” Austin tells The East Nashvillian, just days after the city’s permits department issued a demolition permit for the structure. “The house is down, and now we have to get the building permits to start construction. That’s when we get to rebuild my home.”
     In the wake of the fire, Austin applied for the demolition permit. That’s when his nightmare began, according to Nashville attorney Adam Dread, who represented the musician’s reconstruction efforts before the historic zoning commission, whose approval he needed before tearing down what remained of the gutted structure.
     “The staff could not have been less compassionate about a guy who had just lost his home and who had always been a good neighbor,” Dread says.
     Austin wanted to demolish the structure and rebuild a nearly exact duplicate of the home in its space, complete with original lapboard siding, rather than the asbestos shingles that had been added in the 1950s or ’60s. He also wanted to restore the original posts on the porch rather than late-’60s wrought iron.
     “In a lot of ways, the house will look more like it did in 1925 than it did in 2017,” Austin says of his plans. The commission staff had different ideas, though. They demanded Austin preserve the facade and portions of the rooms behind it, amounting to less than a third of the total structure, work that would have required hundreds of thousands of dollars in restoration, smoke remediation, and asbestos removal — costs that Austin’s insurance company would
not provide.
     Metro Councilman Brett Withers serves on the historic zoning commission and points out the many challenges facing historic preservation. “Demolitions of historic structures are always carefully scrutinized — as they should be,” Withers said.
To that end, the commission received a report totaling almost 200 pages detailing reasons portions of Austin’s home required preservation. That report marked the low point for the conflict, according to Dread. The attorney noted the first expert the commission hired recommended demolition, after which a second expert was hired to reassess the structure. Among the irreplaceable architectural details of the home singled out by the second expert was 100-year-old bead board on
the eaves.
     “We showed them the receipts where that bead board was purchased from Home Depot in 2011,” Dread says. “Their expert was just a quack and didn’t know what she was talking about.”
     Once the case made its way to the full commission, only six of the nine commissioners appeared, barely enough for a quorum. After hearing testimony, the commission voted 3-2 with one abstention to deny the demolition permit, one vote shy of the required majority. The failure of the motion effectively granted Austin’s request to demolish the home and pursue a complete reconstruction.
     Shortly before Christmas, Austin received preliminary approval to build a nearly identical replica of his home, complete with original lapboard siding and wooden columns. He’s in the process of applying for the needed building permits now. Until the permits clear, the man affectionately known as Toddzilla is just thankful for the support of the community he’s become an integral part of over the past 22 years.
     “I respect the historical commission for what they do,” Austin says. “It was just a really bad situation all around. If I hadn’t had the notoriety and that overwhelming public support, I’d have gotten buried.”
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