commentary (2006-21)

Not everything historic is all that old

Modern Preservation?

by Matt Edens

Whether in an angry letter to the editor or entered as a comment in one of the other paper’s online polls, the phrase “Not Everything Old is Historic!” has become a property-rights rallying cry, appearing like clockwork whenever historic preservation is in the headlines. So I can only imagine what the people who type that sentiment—almost invariably in all caps—felt recently if they bothered to read the fine print in Knox Heritage’s recently released “Fragile Fifteen” list of Knoxville and Knox County’s most endangered historic sites.

Lurking among the long list of Victorian these and turn-of-the-century thats was a rather broadly defined and, if you hold to the notion that not everything old is historic, bewildering addition to the local list of Endangered Historic Places: “Mid-Century Modern commercial and residential buildings (1945-1965).”  Argue that not everything old is historic, and those damned preservationists will fire back by announcing that not everything historic is all that old.

Although, in an ironic coincidence, some “modern architecture” is surprisingly old, considering that the earliest architectural styles associated with “modernism” date back to about World War I.  First designed in a day when most Knoxvillians were still building bungalows or Barber and McMurray’s exquisite interpretations of Cotswold Cottages and Tuscan villas, International Style houses are rare bits of architectural avant-garde in Knoxville (as, indeed, they were worldwide) but a handful of modernist houses do exist. One example, a circa-1930 Bauhaus inspired house in Westmoreland, will even be the site of one of the local preservation group’s “Summer Supper” fundraisers.

Knoxvillians (and Americans as a whole) never really embraced the minimalist “machines for living” that were espoused by le Corbusier, Gropius and the rest of the modernist gang. The subdivisions of the ’50s, ’60s and beyond may have done away with traditional things like sidewalks and a street-grid, but the ranchers, ramblers and McMansions lining the curvy drives and cul-de-sacs were typically slathered with colonial and classical detail. Sure, the proportions may be a mess, but the precedents are essentially the same old bourgeoisie ornamentation the Bauhaus boys abhorred.

Corporate America, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of modernism’s clean lines and theoretically cheap, simple forms. The result, as Tom Wolfe observed in From Bauhaus to Our House , was “row after Mies van der Row of glass boxes” in downtowns across the continent. Even Knoxville got a few knock-offs. I always thought there was a little bit of Lever House in the Crystal Building on the corner of Market and Clinch. Once, perhaps, downtown’s most distinctly International Style building, it was a little bit of 1950s Manhattan in the middle of Downtown Knoxville. It’s too bad the remodel is more evocative of 1980s Miami, or maybe Houston.

Then there’s the old (relatively speaking…) Inter-Agency Insurance Building, on the corner of Concord and Kingston Pike. Another exemplary example of International Style architecture, I’m sure people were proud of how stylish and modern it seemed back in the day. But years later, its dated architecture and deferred maintenance, along with the cheeky way it all but shouldered aside the old red-brick Oakwood Mansion behind it, made it one of the most disparaged buildings in town. Not only did it make the cover of a Metro Pulse story entitled “Tear It Down,” its recent demolition prompted a thread on a local message board entitled: “Mid Century Eyesore Goes Bye-Bye.”

The fact that nobody shed a tear when the “Mid-Century Eyesore” went bye-bye essentially proves the preservationists’ point. Styles and tastes change with time. But not only do things become outdated, they can also make a comeback. When the Crystal Building and its other modernist kin were being built back in the ’50s, who could have fathomed that the buildings we were only too happy to knock over then (or, occasionally, encase in glass) would suddenly be hot commodities? So fashionable, in fact, that a developer is busily building a faux redbrick downtown out on Northshore Drive. And inside downtown, the dingy old buildings that looked so out of date 50 years ago have morphed into multi-million dollar loft developments, the cornerstones of downtown’s real estate revival.

So who knows, maybe in a few years we’ll look at Knoxville’s few remaining International style buildings from the ’50s, polish up the glass and steel to its original gleam, and be glad we kept a few around?