The Infamous McClung Warehouses

Some do remain, a symbol of—what?

Dear Doc Knox:

Do you have any history into the significance of the McClung Warehouses as well as the McClung family in the Knoxville area?

I would love to see some development rehabilitate the structures and continue to connect the growth and revival of the West Jackson Avenue corridor.

Do you think it is important to maintain the existing structures not only for their structural integrity but historical significance within the area?

Inquisitively,

Tyler B.

My Dear Mr. B:

Why, yes, in a word.

Founded in 1884, C.M. McClung & Co. built these warehouses to be adjacent to the region's busiest freight yards; almost a mile of Jackson Avenue was lined with railroad-oriented wholesale businesses. These were major drivers of Knoxville's economy during its late-19th-century boom years. Only a few of these buildings remain.

McClung, which published an annual mail-order catalogue of its many offerings, was Knoxville's answer to Sears, Roebuck, and was, for decades, enormously successful. Oriented generally to a regional customer base, McClung sold lots of agricultural equipment, very broadly defined: everything from its own brand of rifle to perhaps the first barbed wire East Tennessee farmers had ever seen.

Its founder, Calvin McClung (1855-1919) was a member of a family that included some of Knoxville's founders. A graduate of our local university, he earned a graduate degree in chemistry from Yale and founded C.M. McClung & Co. when he bought out a family business when he was only 27. He was involved in several other businesses, from banking to cotton, and was one of the original trustees of Lawson McGhee Library.

We're lucky that he wasn't content just to be a businessman. McClung was also one of the leading local historians of his day and started a collection of books and historic artifacts that became the nucleus of what we know as the McClung Collection. The McClung Collection now takes up the third floor of the East Tennessee History Center, in the old Custom House building. It's where we spend much of our time. Most of C.M. McClung's catalogs are on file there, and make for pretty interesting reading.

The McClung Warehouses, the oldest of which dated to 1893, began to get attention in the 1990s, in the early days of downtown residential development. Collectively they seemed to offer enormous potential to be one of downtown's biggest residential anchors. One building in the center of the complex was occupied and used by a local artisan.

On more than one occasion, the owner and would-be developer of the other four buildings announced a grand residential scheme for high-density, affordable housing on West Jackson.

The owner made some substantial improvements to the buildings, but, protesting about what he perceived as preferential treatment toward other downtown developers in terms of public incentives, never completed his plans. Concerned that the buildings remained a dangerous liability and an eyesore, preservationists and city officials demanded that the owner either finish his project or sell the buildings. Property-rights absolutists declared the owner should be allowed to proceed at his own pace.

His residential proposal never seemed to catch fire; unfortunately, his buildings did. Empty buildings do indeed have a distressing tendency to ignite, and almost six years ago, a spectacular fire destroyed the larger part of the collection of buildings, erasing the older parts of McClung Warehouses from the landscape, and, when a wall collapsed, demolishing a city firetruck.

Methinks the fire complicated the political usefulness of the issue. The owner's exercising of his property rights resulted, indirectly, in costing city taxpayers hundreds of thousands in collateral damage, plus the destruction of a well-kept building owned by another party. Absolute property-rights theories work best in the pristine countryside.

However, thanks to prompt attention from the fire department, two good-sized buildings were saved. The buildings still standing date to about 1911 and 1927. Several downtown developers are interested in purchasing and rehabbing them. And since the fire, residential development has begun to stretch from Gay Street toward the McClung site.

For half a decade now, the fates of the buildings have been batted around between bankruptcy court, the city, Knoxville's Community Development Corporation, and the owner himself, who is demanding millions to relinquish what remains of the warehouses. The last we heard, the issue was at a stalemate, and from what we can tell, no parties are moving very urgently. The worst-case outcome is Dickensian. Sometimes lawsuits outlast the litigants.

By the way, these old warehouses on Jackson are worth a footnote in rock 'n' roll history. Though former Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman probably hasn't performed in Knoxville since he came to the Civic Coliseum with the lads in 1972, he used a Knoxville photo for the cover of the American release of his much-praised 1999 solo album, Anyway the Wind Blows. That photo, taken by then-sometime Metro Pulse photographer Aaron Jay, shows the McClung Warehouses in the background. The buildings most prominently visible in the photo are the ones that are gone.

Yours sincerely,

Z. Heraclitus Knox, C.O.D., O.C.D.

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