Downtown Knoxville's Whittle Uprising

What buildings stood before Whittle Communications absorbed two city blocks?

Dear Doc Knox,

What historic buildings gave way to the former Whittle Communications building, now the Howard Baker Federal Courthouse, and was there protest at the time to try to save those buildings?

Thank you,

Jennifer Corum

My Dear Mlle. Corum:

The shortest answer is hardly any, and not much. But it turns out to be just a bit more complicated than we remember.

Whittle Communications—we may now be obliged to define it, for those who weren't around in those heady days—was an unusual national publishing company, a maverick magazine factory that grew rapidly for 20 years before Chris Whittle built his Georgian collegiate-palatial building facing Main Street in 1991.

At the time, Whittle was getting involved in television production and, astonishingly, national private education (the Edison Project). Whittle was trendy and high tech, and his potential seemed to have no bounds in 1991. He convinced the city to offer him unusual allowances, to condemn some buildings by eminent domain and close a street to through traffic, in order to secure this headquarters of a stylish company with global prospects. (He even persuaded the city to rename Main Avenue "Main Street.") The building, a combination of state-of-the-art wiring and throwback architecture (windows with sashes!) hosted the main editorial offices for about 20 Whittle publications, and was intended eventually to house television studios for Whittle's growing video empire, which included his company's creation, the educational innovation—or outrage, to some—Channel One. Those TV parts of the building, mainly the wing to the east of the Main Street gate, were never occupied. But most of the building was a glamorously bustling place for three or four years, as Whittle employees like former Yale president Benno Schmidt, former Fortune magazine editor Bill Rukeyser, and former Carter-administration aide Hamilton Jordan, made lots of important phone calls therein, and sent some of the first e-mails in Knoxville history.

The city's submission to Whittle's desires was unprecedented. Previously, no business had succeeded in persuading Knoxville to permanently close an important downtown street for a private development. It helped Whittle's case that the two square blocks in question weren't much to look at anyway. If it wasn't blighted, it was just a broken beer bottle away from it. Fully half the site was already given up to asphalt surface parking, a predominance of which is the first clue that there's not much going on in this town.

Among the actual buildings in the way were the Gateway bookstore, which looked something like an oversized FEMA trailer, and the Trailways bus terminal, then only about 30 years old, but a bit of an eyesore, by 1980s standards. By now the bus station might offer some retro charm, but back then, the public might have hailed anybody's plan to build nearly anything else there.

Still, the project did raise quite a stink when it was unveiled 1986, as one displaced tenant threatened to "start World War III" over the erasure of two city blocks. But not so much over the historic value of the buildings.

The most fervent objections came from those owners and tenants who depended on these two blocks for their livelihoods. Businesses who objected most strongly included the original Lunch Box restaurant, a small, one-story building facing Main, and three law firms displaced by the plan. The fiercest objector was the law firm of Hodges, Doughty & Carson, owners of a classically styled two-story brick building on Main. They protested not because their building was historically old, but because it was almost brand new, just months after an expansive renovation. And its location, directly across from the courthouse, was more than ideal for lawyers.

Among the other firms who protested their relocation were that of a former Knoxville mayor, Morrison, Morrison, Tyree & Dickenson, and O'Neil, Parker, and Williamson; the latter firm was accommodated in the Whittle building itself, near the site of their original offices, as its only non-Whittle occupants. (That firm has recently swapped their unique status for a new West Knoxville location.)

None protested so vociferously as Hodges, Doughty, & Carson, which, 24 years ago this summer, seemed to stand squarely between Chris Whittle and his fondest dream. They struck an 11th-hour agreement, though, and that firm occupied a new building on the corner of Henley and Main.

Anyway. To answer your question, Mlle. Corum, with buildings that have been gone for more than two decades—demolitions were completed in 1988—it's hard even for Dr. Knox to know for certain whether some parts of the original Lunch Box, at 419 Main, say—or the Greater Tennessee Building, at 810 Market Street—were older or more historic than the average Whittle yuppie.

Of the doomed buildings, only one was ever mentioned as "historic" in newspaper accounts, and then only in passing. It was one then called the East Tennessee Title Agency Building, a two-story brick building at 813 Market Street. Built in the 1920s, it had been the longtime headquarters of Baumann & Baumann, once Knoxville's best-known architectural firm. It was old enough to be considered historic, and had some real provenance. But what did it look like? To be honest, we don't remember.

Preservationist architect Gene Burr did remark on that building's historic interest, but it doesn't seem to have aroused much passion. Knoxville's most prominent preservationist, Kristopher Kendrick, was enthusiastic about the Whittle project.

To some, especially on the Metropolitan Planning Commission, the Whittle construction's biggest casualty was not a building, but that block of Market Street, itself. Known before World War I as Prince Street, it once went all the way through to both Main and Hill, and at one time even descended to the river wharves, connecting them directly to Market Square. In 1987, MPC pushed for agreements from Whittle to maintain public pedestrian access along the route of old Market Street during "reasonable business hours." Back then, downtown business hours were pretty much just daytime on weekdays. So today the federal courthouse's courtyard, which was once part of Market Street, is gated all weekend and after 7 p.m. on weekdays. Thus, it keeps Whittle's agreement by staying accessible to the public during "reasonable business hours," 1987-style.

Previous buildings on that double-block site did include several historic ones, all of which were gone decades before the Whittle project was a twinkle in anyone's eye: the Civil War-era Knox County Courthouse, which had been torn down in the 1880s; the Women's Building, destroyed by fire in the early 20th century; and the once-famous quonset-hut-style Auditorium and rollerskating rink, which later became a streetcar barn. It was torn down by 1950, and the Trailways terminal was built on its site.

After all that disruption, Whittle Communications sputtered and downsized, jettisoning most of its magazines. The Whittle Building, object of so much high-flying hope and bitter anger 25 years ago, served as Whittle Communications headquarters for barely four years. The building was later converted into the Howard Baker Federal Courthouse.

Whittle, for whatever faults he might have had as a global dreamer, seems to have been sensitive to historic structures. A bird's eye view of the Whittle building will show how deftly his architects avoided impinging on the James Park House on one end and the Bijou Theatre on the other. One part of the substantial-looking building near the Park House is very narrow to a degree that's almost illusory. Though it looks substantial from both sides, it's barely wide enough for a corridor. Both historic buildings are, incidentally, in better shape today than they were in 1991.

But it's odd to consider that what was, long ago, the Whittle Building, which looks like a 17th-century British college and which does have some dramatic history—up to and including the dramatic visit from Mrs. Sarah Palin last year—won't be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places for another three decades.

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Z. Heraclitus Knox

The good doctor answers most every historical query. Send your mysteries to: Just one per customer, please!

Latest Blog Posts