Our Most-Asked Question: So, About That Completely Intact, Underground Block Of Gay Street...

Hey Doc,

Is it true that underneath the 100 block of Gay Street the original city buildings are still there and intact with their store fronts just as they were built?? I've been trying to find out for years.

Bill Ward

My Dear Mr. Ward:

This question has been answered in Metro Pulse before, but it has been a while, and we realize each new year brings new people to town who don't know the true story of Underground Knoxville.

The answer is "sort of." The rumors make it sound more interesting than the reality. But the reality does hold some interesting potential.

Explaining it requires just a little background. Most of Gay Street hasn't changed its altitude in the 220 years since it was first laid out. Though some buildings along the 400 through 600 blocks have extraordinarily large basements, leading denizens to conclude they were originally ground floors, they're really just big basements. Especially on the east side of Gay, the topography slopes off so sharply you'd have to build a big basement or two to begin with just to create a front door that greets the street.

There's also been a lot of under-surface excavation and construction over the years. There's a small masonry tunnel leading under Gay Street from the Miller's Building to the Fidelity Building, for example. It's no longer used, but there's a lot of utility corridors beneath the street, some of them visible through sidewalk grates.

For decades, into the early 20th century, Gay Street, going north, descended sharply from what's now Summit Hill Drive, but then came to the freight yards, where a steep iron bridge took Gay over railroad traffic. The important street therefore presented a roller-coaster effect that city fathers deemed less than ideal. In 1919, they replaced the old iron bridge with a modern concrete viaduct, built not just to cross the freight yards, but to bridge the old gap, connecting to the high part of Gay, and effectively flattening the street. When it was complete late that year, the first floors of the Emporium and several other buildings became, in essence, basements.

However, the street itself is built on solid fill, held in by concrete retaining walls. It was a wise choice, if not a romantic one. For better or worse, it's nothing much like Underground Atlanta.

So what does exist are some corridors, partly obstructed, beneath the sidewalk on either side. That is, you can't see one side from the other, or get from one side to the other, underground.

And though you can see a few features that would be unusual in an ordinary basement—like, in one case, a sash-style window—and some minimal ornamentation, you have to look for it, and know what you're looking for. Probably the most interesting feature is a small length of partly glass-brick sidewalk, cocked at its original steep angle, roughly in the middle of the western side. But you have to do some ducking and rooting around with a flashlight to get a good look at it.

Most of these areas have been used for storage for almost a century, and many building owners have long since brought up anything that's very interesting to look at. It's possible that the old Edwardian storefronts were still semi-intact for a few decades; we have a vague memory of viewing a photograph of Edwardian storefronts and lampposts, in a newspaper published perhaps 40 years ago, but we're not certain when that image appeared, or exactly what it depicted (if anyone out there knows about that article, please let us know).

It may be merely an exaggeration of our youthful imagination. Regardless, however, these corridors don't really offer the impression of a forbidden city. The western-side corridor has been used for practical purposes in recent years, especially by David Dewhirst and Co. Our former publisher, Mr. Joe Sullivan, keeps his capacious office off one of those corridors. In some chambers of Knoxville's underworld, we hear, cigarette smoking is still legal.

Some of the underground has been used for social events. Back in the 1990s, a masquerade party was held in the chamber that includes the old glass-brick sidewalk, which was lit for effect from underneath.

About two years ago, a rare showing of the James Agee-inspired film, All the Way Home, was shown in an old storefront on the eastern side, but many of the 60-odd attendees got there without realizing they'd just walked through "Underground Knoxville."

It's interesting, if you do know what it is, but not dumbfounding.

That said, the linear spaces suggest interesting potential for alternative cafes or galleries, and Dewhirst, the city's most vigorous and imaginative developer these days, who owns much of Underground Gay Street, has expressed interest in developing it, perhaps eventually to be known, as one architectural wag suggested, UnGay. And Dewhirst seems to get around to doing everything he proposes, no matter how outlandish it seems at first.

Yr. Obt. Svt.

Dr. Z. Heraclitus Knox

Do you have an inquiry of a historical nature pertaining to life in the Knoxville area? The doctor may have your answer. Send your question to editor@metropulse.com.