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Moving Up

One Family’s Dashed Hopes Turned into a New Dream

When Brooke Phillips sat down to tell her story, she started with a sigh, followed by a pause, and then: “You know, it’s just one of those things that life… throws at you. You think it can be no good, but it’s usually those things that open the door to a blessing you didn’t understand.” 

She is careful with her words, and her voice is shaky. It’s been an emotional ride, and Brooke isn’t one to hide that part of herself. Where to begin? When is the exact moment when the path you’re on takes a sharp left turn in another direction? 

The beginning is as good a place as any.

“I’m from Strawberry Plains and graduated from Rutledge High School,” she starts. “Dan was coaching football at Carson Newman, and he accepted a position in Florida two weeks before we got married in 1999. We lived just north of Orlando and were there for 13 years.” 

In addition to coaching, Dan started working in ministry and eventually became a full-time pastor. They had four children - Charlie, Ellie, Jack, and Sam - and Brooke homeschooled them. Life moved forward, and every sign pointed in the direction of this being their family’s path. It was in this space where Brooke started teaching herself about interior design.

“Because of our limited budget, I learned how to do every trade I needed to to create a beautiful home. I learned upholstery, furniture painting, drapery making -- I learned all of these things and studied incessantly. I didn’t have enough money to pay someone to help me but it was important to me,” she says. “It was inside of me from a little girl. My mom had white walls when white walls weren’t cool. It was an undecorated home, but my bedroom was like another world.”

She pauses again.

“And then we had a May Day. We lost our ministry, our home, our cars, everything. And it was the kindest thing God allowed in our life,” she says. “After that, my dad called and said, ‘if I find a place for you to live, will you come back?’ We fought that for years, but we ended up coming back.”

Like any move, there was an adjustment period back home to Knoxville. It was 2013. Dan went back to coaching and teaching, and Brooke picked up a part-time job at the Paleo Foods Cafe. She’d already cut her teeth designing multi-million dollar homes in Florida for free, partly because she loved the work and partly because, as a pastor’s wife, she felt like her work was part of ministry. Back home in East Tennessee, it was just about picking up a little extra cash. And yet, she longed to return to her passion.

“We were living in a rental house, and the woman who owns the cafe, Courtney, asked me, ‘What are you doing here? You don’t belong behind a bar serving coffee’, but life had kicked the wind out of me. Courtney had a place in the coffee shop that wasn’t utilized, so she said, ‘Do something there. I don’t care what it is,’” says Brooke. “I contacted local artisans and built a little gift shop, and from there, I started a little company and had three clients immediately. Then I had a full calendar. Within a year, I had a monthly TV spot on WBIR. Within another year, I had offers for TV shows. In the middle of starting a company, we were living in a 1200-square-foot rental house in South Knoxville. All six of us. Dan was teaching and I was making $8 an hour.”

Part of Brooke’s budding design business included helping homeowners ready their house for resale. When a realtor friend told her about the shabby state of a house on Wye Way, Brooke never dreamed that 1930s colonial was going to be hers.

“She contacted me at the end of 2015 about this house. I walked in, and the smell was - I can’t even describe it. Just years of garbage being in a house. I had a handyman with me and the bid on clean-up was $50,000,” she says. “But, that house spoke to me. I don’t know how to say it. I made a comment to the elderly gentleman, something like, ‘Oh my goodness, what I’d give to buy it!’ But I knew it was so far out of our price range that it wasn’t possible. Carol called me the next month and said, ‘This is gonna sound crazy, but the man has it in his mind that you were serious. He believes God wants you to have this house.”

As if part of a game, they threw in an incredibly low offer, not considering for a moment it would morph into a contract. Not only did the homeowner accept the offer, he threw in $70,000 to help them take it off his hands. 

Was there a catch? Technically, no. The home was situated off Alcoa Hwy, which was already under a years-long expansion project. TDOT gave the property clearance - what seemed like a firm “No, we don’t need your house to widen the highway.” With that confirmation in-hand, the Phillips family moved into their forever fixer-upper and began renovating. They tripled their square footage and settled into a home where Dan and Brooke envisioned living for a generation. They would see their grandchildren toddle around those floors. They’d have big family gatherings. It would be unlike anything they imagined. 

Which is why when TDOT came knocking two years later, the Phillips were shocked. An appraiser turned up one morning to assess the property’s value, and Brooke was sure he’d arrived at the wrong address. 

“We had a letter [as proof], and he apologized saying I needed to call TDOT. Turns out a month after we purchased the house, their decision had been changed. They thought we’d been notified but we hadn’t. We wouldn’t have renovated if we’d known. It was an oversight. So, we just sat there, stunned,” says Brooke. “It took us two weeks to wrap our heads around it.” 

All of that work, all of that money, all of those dreams. It felt nonsensical. To make things worse, TDOT didn’t need their whole two acres. They only needed the house for an easement, and that meant leaving behind the detached garage and above apartment - which was used for a rental property and guest apartment - still in their possession. 

The logistics of eminent domain are full of stipulations, which meant that looking for a place to live - in 90 days, no less - was complicated. The loss of their forever home was setting in, and finding a replacement was proving hard. 

That is, until Brooke and Dan inquired about a Spanish-style house up the street. They’d seen it on walks and always wondered who owned it. Turns out, no one had lived there in years, and it was up for sale. The house was huge, plenty big enough to fit the family of now seven. (Brooklyn, their foster daughter, would have her own room.) Like the 1930s colonial, the 1990s Spanish-style villa was in bad shape. They could move in, but it was going to be a steady mess for a good long while. With nothing to lose, the Phillips made a low offer, and again, it worked in their favor. 

Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, TDOT returned recently to say that, yes, in fact they do need that garage and overhead apartment, so the headache of eminent domain isn’t yet over. There always seems to be another curveball. 

But that’s life, right? Because what’s come into view for the Phillips family in their Spanish Villa atop a mountain (with the best views in Knoxville) is an open door of ideas for what can be done in that space. Despite not working in ministry anymore, they are still ministry-minded. As Brooke’s and Dan’s respective businesses grow, having space for whatever comes their way is a bigger blessing than they could’ve imagined.

“This property has refocused us as a family. It’s inspired us to keep going. You think you’re always searching for arrival, but I don’t think that’s how life is at all. It’s constantly evolving, a reminder that we’re not even done here,” says Brooke. “Loss is often the gateway into a blessing you could not have imagined. Having the mindset as I get older, ‘Okay, I don’t like that that happened, and it didn’t feel good, but there is a reason it did.’ If I will allow myself to not grow bitter, then I will be better for the loss and heartbreak.”