State St., That Great Street

Well, before the parking lots, anyway


As a teenager I carried the News Sentinel and, at times, the Knoxville Journal. While carrying the "Downtown Route," my manager dropped my bundle at the Commerce Avenue Fire Hall, located at the corner of Commerce and State Street. My first stop was The State Street Apartments, just across the street. It was a huge building, made of stone. And, if my memory serves me, it had three or four stories. What can you tell us about this old building? Thank you,

Don, on the Tellico River

Dear Don:

We appreciate this opportunity to revisit the old neighborhood of Commerce and State. That neglected corner of downtown was once known for its proud architectural landmarks of brick and marble: the grand old Palace Hotel, the noble Hampden-Sidney School, and of course the handsome Commerce Avenue Fire Hall. All gone now.

Built in 1904, that Commerce Avenue Fire Hall, once the Knoxville Fire Department's main headquarters, was a lovely old centerpiece for a part of town that has all but vanished from the landscape.

But your query concerns the big four-story apartment building that stood across the street, at the northeast corner of State and Commerce. Its nearly forgotten story reminds us of the days when State was a thriving urban street, with big buildings and businesses and hundreds of residences. In recent decades, we've sacrificed most of its old neighborhood to better demonstrate our submission to the Parked Car.

This story reminds us of why we're obliged to renovate old factory buildings, wholesale warehouses, and office buildings for residences. People want to live downtown again, and the melancholy fact is that most of our old apartment buildings are long gone.

The State Street Apartments, previously known as the Municipal Apartments, was a four-story brick building with 68 apartments, plus a grocery in the basement. Established as an apartment building around 1945, as cheap housing in the suburbs was blooming, it was relatively late as a downtown residential project—one of the last downtown general-purpose apartment buildings established before the modern condo era.

But, as it turns out, it wasn't necessarily a new building in 1945. More about that after a few paragraphs of apartment-building biography.

The people who lived in State Street Apartments included some young families, but in later years more "elderly pensioners," as one contemporary news article described them. Even as Knoxville suburbanized, and residents supposedly fled downtown, it remained attractive to more than 100 citizens, mostly of modest means.

One afternoon in February, 1975, a fire broke out in a fourth-floor kitchen. The blaze killed one tenant, a retired city janitor, and left 105 homeless—and the building in ruins. Firemen were immediately on the scene, being as the city's main fire hall was just across the street. By the time the fire was out, the fourth floor was gutted, the third floor heavily damaged. There was some optimistic talk of restoring it, but soon afterward, it was demolished. The space was soon cleared for another parking lot, State Street's modern specialty.

The Commerce Avenue Fire Hall closed two years later. Of course, it was torn down, too. One of the dailies ran a photo of the lovely old fire hall, with the caption, "In Way of Progress." If you want to see what Progress looks like, go down to the corner of State and Commerce today, and behold.

And here's an irony: four months after it was demolished in 1977, word came back from Washington that the Commerce Avenue Fire Hall was finally approved for the National Register of Historic Places.

But here's a startling detail that may get to your curiosity about the unusual-looking brick-and-stone building. Long before the State Street Apartments were established there, that northeast corner of State and Commerce boasted an architectural showcase: the Palace Hotel, a posh, high-Victorian hostelry with arches and gables and a corner turret crowned with a voluptuous dome like a minaret. Built in 1888 by developer and future Knoxville Mayor Mel Thompson, it was designed by the architectural firm of Beaver & Hoffmeister, who also designed Clinch Avenue's equally elaborate 1890 Vendome. Trimmed with marble, the Palace, which had about 60 guest rooms, was one of Knoxville's most luxurious hotels during those glory years, and was famous for its sumptuous banquets.

In 1903, the hotel closed and the same building was fitted with a gymnasium and began a new career as the Knoxville YMCA, before that organization's 1929 move to its current location. The building seems almost to vanish, as other businesses are listed at that address. By the mid-1930s, some building at that same address was the headquarters of several New Deal-era relief programs, like the National Youth Administration, the Children's Welfare Bureau, the Social Service Exchange, and some Works Progress Administration programs. The State Street Apartments building appears after that.

A couple of reputable sources, including retired fireman and fire-department historian Jack Lewis, claim that the building known as the State Street Apartments was in fact the same building as the Palace Hotel.

If so, it underwent radical plastic surgery. The walls still standing in the fire photos of 1975 don't look like Palace walls. They're plain and simple, like those of a postwar building: mostly brick, no turrets or arches or gables in sight. But both the apartment building and the legendary hotel made the same footprint, and were four stories tall. The windows look roughly the same shape as those of the Palace. And the number of rooms in the apartment building, 68, is just a few more than the number of rooms in the old Palace—as you might expect, if each of the rooms of an old hotel became efficiency apartments, and a few other amenities of a luxury hotel, like maybe a ballroom or dining room, were fitted out for apartments, too.

Maybe it underwent that major rebuild when the federal government began using it for offices.

So, hotel, YMCA, federal office building, popular apartment building: When you see a boring parking lot, you just never know.

Yr. Obt. Svt.

Z. Heraclitus Knox, F.D.