Photo courtesy of Visit Knoxville
Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon was a key to making the so dubbed “Old City” a destination unto itself.
People who haven’t been to downtown Knoxville in a decade or two will need to allow some time for adjustment. The general shapes of the narrow old streets and crowded buildings look familiar, maybe. But that four-level 1930s cafeteria, vacant for a quarter century and repeatedly targeted for demolition, is now an Aveda Institute, a beehive of young beauty students in bold hairstyles and striking attire offering cuts and cosmetics. What was a building boarded up so long most didn’t remember it was ever a sporting-goods store is now a colorful destination for Italian-style gelato, some evenings too crowded to find a seat. At the base of a 1919 hotel building closed since the ‘70s, what had been a defunct Delta customer counter is now a sunny creperie with an outdoor café. What was a century-old bank building with decrepit office space is now a fully occupied 15-story residential tower with 44 of the highest-end condos in the area, some of them selling for more than one million dollars.
That’s all on one block.
Maybe more astonishing is old Market Square, around the corner. In the 1990s, businesses were still evacuating this odd accumulation of Victorian commercial buildings. No one had lived on the Square in decades. The awnings of a former era’s renovation in tatters, several roofs caving in, as Knoxville’s municipal Eeyores, with I-told-you-so shrugs, mumbled it was just a matter of time before the lot would have to be torn down.
Back then, the Square’s handful of lunch-centric restaurants all closed before 3 p.m. Today it’s lively until 3 a.m. Home to fifteen restaurants, the half-block Square also hosts several shops, a boutique hotel, a wine bar, and a popular three-floor live-music-and-beer nightclub, and scores of residents.
Market Square was established in 1854 for local farmers, but by the 1990s, only one old farmer was showing up regularly. Today, Market Square’s reborn farmers’ market attracts dozens of lively vendors and thousands of customers; a 2010 Internet poll named it one of America’s five best farmers’ markets.
Today, Market Square, and downtown in general, is busy almost all the time. It might appear to be something like sorcery—or perhaps some billion-dollar philanthropic or municipal effort along the lines of an expert’s master plan.
But Knoxville hasn’t built a modern performing-arts center, no big shopping mall, no aquarium, planetarium, no ballpark. Its expensive 2002 convention center doesn’t draw enough conventions to be considered a major driver of downtown development. Downtown hasn’t even seen a major new office building in twenty years.
John Leith Tetrault, president of the National Trust Community Investment Corp., based in Washington, D.C., may understand Knoxville’s advantage: “We have never seen a downtown renaissance occur so quickly and with such a clear connection to the rehabilitation of historic buildings,” he recently said.
Most of what has happened downtown has happened in buildings that were built for other purposes and renovated for new ones.
Kim Trent, executive director of preservationist nonprofit Knox Heritage, isn’t a developer, but has been helping developers for twenty years. “Historic buildings were key to downtown’s revival because they provided appealing architecture and access to the Historic Rehabilitation tax credits to help offset costs of restoration,” she said.
Knoxville’s preservation story involves some strong-willed individuals, among them some unlikely characters who didn’t know they were developers until they were. Knoxville’s most influential preservationist developers of recent years include a professional hairdresser, an airline hostess, a hospital-supplies salesman, and an aerospace engineer.
Knoxville has never been famous for preservation. The city has rarely cherished its history, though it has plenty. Hardly just a college town, Knoxville is one of the region’s oldest cities, founded in 1791 and the politically dynamic new state’s first capital.
Unlike some other 18th-century Southern cities that made it into the 20th century with a large stock of gorgeous antebellum homes, Knoxville saved little of its past. Of the 300-odd houses that comprised Knoxville in 1815, when it was the capital of Tennessee, only one survives. Of the approximately 4,000 structures that stood in Knox County during the Civil War, not quite one percent of them are still standing.
What does remain of downtown Knoxville speaks of a later era, the industrial late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city grew burly brick wholesaling houses and banks on some streets, and smaller, scrappier shops and saloons on others. Several turned out to be more impressive than they seemed when they were covered with soot, plywood advertisements, or cheap modernist siding. Cleaned up and renovated, they surprised and fascinated Knoxvillians who’d never thought twice about their hometown and its history.
In 1974, a Herculean effort to save an old vaudeville theater, which in recent years had been known as a porno house, resulted in the Bijou Theatre, today one of the region’s acoustic jewels. That unlikely success spawned Knox Heritage, formed to boost and inform preservation of old buildings. For twenty years, though, Knoxville Heritage found only a few green shoots to tend.
As the 1982 World’s Fair brought a flurry of interest in downtown, two very different developers rehabbed two old buildings on the western edge of downtown for upscale residences.
A professional real-estate firm accomplished the larger of the two: the Pembroke was a 1930 office building which had served for forty years as the main headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The other, an eccentric hairdresser named Kristopher Kendrick, renovated some once-sleazy 1916 rowhouses as condos with garden courtyards, and renamed them Kendrick Place. An eccentric given to flights of fancy, often imbued with a whiff of Old-World decadence, Kendrick would become downtown’s unlikely godfather of preservation. For almost two decades, if you were affluent and lived downtown, it was a pretty safe bet that you lived in either the Pembroke or Kendrick Place.
A forgotten, neglected, and frankly avoided old warehouse and saloon district on the far end of downtown particularly fascinated Kendrick. He dubbed it The Old City, a title historically vague, but it stuck. The neighborhood was then a thicket of fascinating Victorian architecture, gamey lore and intimidating problems. Fires, injuries, and uncooperative landowners conspired to make revival seem unlikely. More than one investor left town in frustration. A decade after work began, nothing was presentable to the public. But its promise kept drawing unconventional investors. The first to break through was Annie Delisle, an English-born former professional dancer. She also happened to be the ex-wife of novelist Cormac McCarthy, who had described this seamy part of town in sordid detail in his 1979 novel, Suttree. In 1983 she opened a French restaurant cum jazz club. Annie’s shocked affluent, suburban Knoxville by succeeding.
More investment followed, much of it pushed by Kendrick, including the Old City’s landmark building, the brick-turreted Sullivan’s Saloon, and by 1987, the Old City was a sensation. This small remainder of the warehouse district was by the late 1980s showing exciting potential as a compact nightlife entertainment district. These interesting old Victorian buildings, cleaned up, were a big part of the attraction.
By the end of the century, though, the Old City seemed to have peaked, but other dreams were in the works.
Market Square, once Knoxville’s cultural nucleus, needed major help. Narrow and oblong compared to most town squares, Market Square is two rows of buildings facing each other across a pedestrian mall. Thirty-seven addresses in all, it represents buildings of a variety of sizes, quality, and styles, most built between the Civil War and the Great Depression. A superficial redo in 1986 succeeded in removing the modernist vestiges of a 1960 redo, but showed little permanent result in restoring its vitality.
Kim Trent remembers how it was. “I was raised in Mobile and have always loved historic buildings and downtowns,” she said. “When I moved here from Atlanta (in 1992), one of the first places I visited was Market Square. There was something so magical about it and the town seemed to have so much potential. I’m a sucker for potential when I see it—even if downtown was mostly deserted nights and weekends back then.”
In 1999, a private developer’s arrogant plan called for a massive coordinated redo of a multi-block district, running the 150-year-old square like a shopping mall, with “covenants” governing business types and opening hours. For a while, they proposed a giant dome over the square to protect it from weather.
The plan alarmed many downtowners and prompted alternate proposals. Preservation-minded progressives became handy with the word “organic” to describe the kind of growth they wanted to see in downtown Knoxville: no restrictive top-down plans, but natural growth, like a flower garden with many different species, some of them experimental.
After numerous public meetings, the city rebuilt the Square’s infrastructure, with some limited façade improvements, in 2003. It turned out to make a fertile bed.
One trick, after decades of attempts to recreate Market Square at the daytime-retail level, was to encourage mixed-use development including, for the first time since boarding-house days, residences. They’d already been sprouting there, without close direction from the city.
Kendrick retired from the field, spending his last few years in the small Market Square hotel he called the St. Oliver, which he was proud to note was the favored Knoxville home of actress Patricia Neal. He remained a mentor and inspiration to some much younger developers, especially David Dewhirst.
A young aerospace engineer who’d worked on the designs of F-16s, Dewhirst had East Tennessee roots, but had lived in several other cities, most recently Washington, DC, when he returned to the Knoxville area to help a tech start-up. That didn’t pan out, but it re-introduced him to Knoxville, which, on his first-ever drive around downtown in 1993, astonished him. “Downtown was beautiful, just vacant,” he recalls. “I’ve seen these buildings all over the world,” but never affordable. “Knoxville was so inexpensive at the time, I thought, I want to buy one of those.”
Not all aerospace engineers are sentimental about old buildings, but for Dewhirst, “there’s something unique, authentic, refreshing” about late-Victorian commercial buildings. Many are built of materials impossible to duplicate, like old-growth beams, likely from ancient trees harvested in the Smokies long before it was a park.
With the encouragement of Jim and Jo Mason, an insurance agent and a wicker dealer who were rehabbing a large building as their own residence—along with a homeless shelter, they’d be Dewhirst’s only residential neighbors on what was perhaps downtown’s most dreaded block—Dewhirst bought one small building and moved into it. Others followed, including the shop/condo he redeveloped as a home base for his globetrotting mother on Market Square. In 1997, the elderly Mrs. Dewhirst became the Square’s first resident since boarding-house days.
Most properties he redeveloped on a mixed-use model: retail and offices near the street, residences higher up. It was an ancient scheme, but startling in the 1990s, and often discouraged. Postwar zoning laws banned some old-fashioned development until they were overturned to introduce new urbanism.
Encouraged by architects who had long been intrigued by the potential of downtown’s underused buildings, the clean-cut, personable Dewhirst negotiated City Hall with political ease, familiar with the numbers and practical concerns of politicians and bankers. Preservation “raises property values, increases the tax base, brings in capital—it makes sense,” he says. Not that he was persuasive back then.
He began small—the walkup condo he shared with his veterinarian wife was one of his first. Sometimes working with unconventional architect Buzz Goss, and sometimes on former Kendrick properties, Dewhirst seemed to have a magic touch. What he did in the ‘90s was small in scale.
The scale of Knoxville preservationism changed radically at the turn of the century.
Some date the beginning of the current turnaround to a historic building many didn’t even know was there. In the center of the business district in the 1980s and ‘90s was a giant glass cube. It looked for all the world like a cheap, and particularly unimaginative office building. One architect named Duane Grieve remembered that beneath the modernist glass was a beaux-arts department store called Miller’s—concealed in a modernist sheath since the early ‘70s, presumably to make it more marketable.
Though Grieve later became a popular city councilman, in the ‘90s he was a private architect who’d had mixed results rejuvenating a forgotten corner of downtown, an old square on the wrong side of I-40. No one had ever attempted a renovation on the scale of the Miller’s Building before, but Grieve, who’d been planning it for years, seemed up to the task.
With investors and city encouragement, he stripped the glass skin off Miller’s, hoping for the best. Once noted for its four buxom nude busts across the top of the building, Grieve was dismayed to find that the ill-advised modernization had scraped them off. He found one survivor, though, in a suburban garden, and found a way to make copies of it with a synthetic stone-like material. From the sidewalk, they may look better than the originals.
The renovation included something the department store never had, a lofty hotel-style atrium. It attracted the local utility, the Knoxville Utilities Board, to move into the building, along with some private businesses. For Grieve, it was the fulfillment of a personal dream.
The next major project was, if anything, a little more impossible.
Leigh Burch was a well-known developer and real-estate broker in Atlanta, part of the downtown boom that coincided with the 1996 Olympics.
In 1998, he visited Knoxville, where he’d spent part of his early childhood, to see a football game. “I drove around downtown, and it was just dead,” he recalls. “But there were a lot of good-looking buildings. I thought, golly, why not just pick a nice building and fix it up. It might as well be a big one, so I picked the biggest one I could find.”
The Sterchi Building, was once the ten-story headquarters of one of the region’s largest furniture companies. For a furniture company, it had some real history. In the 1920s, Sterchi sold Victrolas, and expanded the market for recorded music into the working class by sponsoring an early radio station and some of the first commercial recordings of country music.
But its old building had been empty for almost twenty years, its entrance fenced off from the sidewalk. One of Knoxville’s least-likely turnarounds, it was isolated from downtown’s few beaten paths, located on a long-neglected block that still hosted pawn shops, cheap jewelers, and a homeless shelter. The Sterchi looked impossible to reuse, difficult to demolish.
Burch moved to Knoxville. “Nobody thought it would work,” he says. “We went to every local bank. Everybody thought I was high.”
The city itself seemed skeptical at first. “I just wouldn’t go away, I just kept coming back,” he says. “I had the blinders on. I believed, I believed, I believed.”
Local banks never did, but with a complicated patchwork of deals through the federal Housing and Urban Development, and historic tax credits, Burch found $10 million to finance the project. (The empty building itself was only about 7.5 percent of that total.) The administration of conservative and previously skeptical Mayor Victor Ashe eventually pitched in, helping with a guarantee of nearby parking and some assistance with Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program.
It took years to complete, but now the Sterchi is home to approximately 200 people, mostly young, mostly affluent. Even Knoxville’s famously conservative bankers might call it a success.
About half of the people who moved in, Burch noted, had lived in bigger cities, Boston, New York, Chicago. They said, “We were looking for something like this.”
Dewhirst took his turn with one of Kendrick’s old dreams, the unusual 1890s Emporium Building, used mainly for storage for decades. Knoxville banks still weren’t budging, but now Mayor Ashe was listening. (Dewhirst thinks the tipping point might have been a conversation with Chattanooga Mayor-turned developer Jon Kinsey.)
Again, local banks turned him down. It took a vigorous partner from Florida and a bank in Birmingham, as well as city investment in the building’s lower quarters, which became an artistic non-profit center, Dewhirst renovated the rest as an innovative apartment building. Today it’s fully occupied as a big upscale apartment building, but also the single most popular destination of the city’s monthly First Friday gallery walks.
Soon, Leigh Burch bought a two-story building down the street, a former shoe store, which with an innovative restoration including outdoor decks became Lerner Lofts, downtown’s first condos since the Pembroke, twenty years earlier.
“People saw that you could sell condos down here, and it just opened up the floodgates,” says Burch, who later developed a larger condo building near the Sterchi, a century-old building called the Commerce.
Burch and Dewhirst’s rough opposite was Scott West, a brash, uninhibited long-haired guitarist for an alt-rock band, who with his airline-hostess wife Bernadette, began opening artsy, offbeat shops and nightclubs in the Old City with mixed success. At the turn of the century, they turned their attention toward Market Square, where after years of hearings and threats of condemnation, the city had become frustrated with do-nothing landlords, one in particular. Ensconced on the Square daily, the Wests convinced the erratic and long-recalcitrant property owner to sell them his buildings, comprising more than a quarter of the historic square, and including its very worst. With a speed that baffled other developers, and unorthodox approaches that sometimes scotched historic tax credits, the Wests transformed a string of empty hulks into a a nightclub, a shop, a pasta restaurant, a wine bar, an art gallery, another nightclub, and a residential suites with rooftop patio--where, a couple of years earlier, there had hardly been a roof.
The Wests’ influence survived a dramatic crash. It seemed some of the money they were investing in the buildings was involved in a major international marijuana conspiracy. The two spent six years, between them, in the penitentiary for money laundering. Though they were obliged to surrender their buildings to the federal government, astonishingly, their families were able to keep all but one of the businesses thriving during their founders’ absence.
Knox Heritage, the preservationist nonprofit founded in 1974, but often just a meek coordinator of volunteers and a generator of good ideas in its early years, began to roar in 2002, hiring its first executive director Kim Trent, who’d been a community-investment specialist.
“Until 2002 we only had occasional part-time administrative support,” she says. “Today we have a staff of five and our budget is 13 times bigger than it was 10 years ago. Our membership has quadrupled and we’re saving more places and helping more people than ever before. It’s a thrilling time.” The group’s original emphasis was the city of Knoxville, but now an acknowledged success with some national credibility it’s at the center of a sixteen-county effort to save significant structures around East Tennessee.
The successes attracted other investors, hardly any of them traditional developers. Jeffrey Nash, an Englishman who had made a career redeveloping buildings in unlikely neighborhoods in London, redeveloped several historic buildings into condos. Then, feeling homesick, he opened Tennessee’s first “gastropub,” the Crown & Goose, in the Old City.
John Craig had been in the hospital-supplies business for twenty years, but the discovery of a family connection to an old building on Market Square prompted him to invest in purchasing it. It became a habit, and Craig has led renovations, notably that of the old four-floor art-deco cafeteria, the S&W, vacant since 1981—as well as some of downtown’s biggest events, like the city’s first successfully sustained public New Year’s Eve party, and the three-year-old International Biscuit Festival.
Perhaps downtown’s most painstaking renovation was that of the 1928 movie palace the Tennessee Theatre. An astoundingly aggressive multi-million-dollar renovation resulted in a redefinition of the Tennessee, with a deeper stage and a much more elaborate backstage area, as Knoxville’s closest approximation to a modern performing-arts center. The public parts of it looked more like it originally did when it opened in 1928 than it had, literally, since about 1930. The precision renovations, based on 1928 plans, old photographs, assisted by laser technology, surprised even its oldest admirers, who didn’t recall the elaborate wall sconces, removed for reasons unknown not long after the theater’s opening. Reinvented based on photographs, they’re there now.
Funded by a different group dominated by older, more established philanthropists, it had little direct connection to the mixed-use residential developments changing Gay Street—but, of course, it made them all more appealing. The theater hosts Broadway plays, operas, rock shows, and, still, old movies, often several attractions each week. Meanwhile, the smaller Bijou, also subject of a recent renovation, continues to thrive, making Knoxville an unusual city with two restored historic theaters two blocks from each other.
Both are booked by Ashley Capps, a founder of the huge music festival Bonnaroo—who’d begun his own career in the ‘80s, as co-owner of a nightclub fashioned out of a rehabbed old building in the Old City.
Dewhirst, whose instincts for preservation are almost uncanny, kept working: the Cherokee, the enormous Holston, completed just before the condo-market collapse. The empty JFG Coffee factory is now a fully-occupied apartment building. What had seemed like a plain, two-story office building of little interest to history was slated for demolition a few years ago. Before it turned out to be lined with copper—painted, over the years, people assumed it was tin or plastic—and to include an abundance of windows and skylights, some covered over for decades. It’s now an apartment building with four thriving businesses on the ground floor, including an organic grocery and café.
Dewhirst has joined several buildings together around an urban corner once dominated by a homeless shelter, to create a mini-city, a complex of apartments and businesses, employing a subterranean corridor unseen since 1919, when it was a sidewalk.
Today downtown Knoxville is so busy—almost around the clock—it looks like an optimistic city planner’s drawing. Residents, tourists, and suburbanites have made a habit of the place, roaming the sidewalks every day and night. For a testament to the value of preserving an old building, the most extreme example may be Knoxville’s first big historic restoration, the Bijou. In 1974, it was a blighted porn theater many wanted to see removed. In 2009, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff declared it was acoustically one of the best places to hear music in the United States.
“Our success is the result of a complicated mix of people, politics and national trends coming together,” says Trent, “plus a huge shot of pure luck that they came together at all. I believe it was a once-in-a-generation window of opportunity, and will always be grateful we were able to take advantage of it.”
Today Leigh Burch is proud of what they’ve been able to do, but sounds a little melancholic. “I think we’ve done more than there is left to do,” he says. “There’s so little left.” Thanks to their work, the unrenovated buildings that do remain are worth three to four times as much as they were a few years ago.
Dewhirst isn’t quite done, biting off maybe his biggest challenge yet. He’s bought the abandoned White Lily factory, the huge, once-famous 1886 flourmill that closed after 120 years. The demand for downtown residences, which he and his colleagues played a role in creating, hasn’t yet been met. He expects to start construction in 2013.