commentary (2006-41)

Why the red brick road isn’t always the smartest path to follow

Muddled Modernism

by Matt Edens

Some 12 years ago, I’d just climbed the stairs of our then-gutted Victorian in Parkridge when I heard one of the workmen installing our heat and air system in the attic say to the other: “You know, the boy that owns this house has got more money than sense.” They were working above me, on a small plywood platform laid over the rafters. I assume they had no idea I was directly below them, standing in the upstairs hallway.

The words came through clear, though, as the whole house was stripped of plaster down to the bare framing. I let it go and crept quietly back down the stairs. But his words did haunt me from time to time over the next 10 years. Owning a 100-year-old house in East Knoxville inevitably leads to the occasional late night, lying awake in bed, wondering just what you’ve gotten yourself into.

I did get the last laugh, though. We sold that house a little more than a year ago, and even made a little money on the deal. I hadn’t thought of what that workman said for quite a while until, a few weeks ago, standing on Market Street, looking up at the façade-less form of Home Federal’s headquarters building, I sort of saw what he was getting at. Some things just seem to defy reason.

It’s bad enough that Home Federal has ripped the face off one of downtown’s finest examples of mid-century Modernism, but it was the rendering of what the new façade is supposed look like that left my mind reeling. In place of the steel and glass that once graced its front, Home Federal is being remodeled into a rather poorly proportioned imitation of a 100-year-old red brick commercial building.

Think back a year or so and consider the irony. The bank is spending God knows how much to turn their once distinctive downtown headquarters into a crude facsimile of the Sprankle Building, the 100-year-old brick building they spent God knows how much knocking down. The only answer I can come up with is the same one I heard echoing down from my attic over a decade ago: “more money than sense.” Kind of makes me glad I’m not a depositor.

There’s another reason I’m irked by the remodeling job on Market: It’s robbed downtown Knoxville of its most convenient example of how Modernism can coexist within more historic styles, if all of them obey the same basic rules of urban design. And it’s a point that needs making, as the city gropes its way towards a set of downtown design guidelines.

First off, at 50 years of age or more, some early examples of Modernism are historic in their own right, at least as far as eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places is concerned, even if “historic Modernism” is something of an oxymoron (if not downright Dada).

As far as downtown Knoxville is concerned, pristine early examples are rare (and getting rarer, thanks to both Home Federal and Bank East). The few that survive are probably as worthy of protection and preservation as downtown’s stock of even older, and surprisingly more plentiful, brick buildings.

Knoxville also has a tendency—whether in the suburbs or downtown—to equate red brick with good design. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case, certainly not with regards to urban design.

Home Federal’s glass façade may have stood out from its neighbors, but in form and function it fit into the block in exactly the same way its red brick reincarnation will, and perhaps better than the pseudo-historic brick Centre Square buildings up the street, with their relatively blank street walls and inset corner-arcade entrances. That makes me hope that, as the downtown design guidelines go forward, the planners focus on form and function for new construction, rather than dictate style and aesthetics.

Modernism, after all, is a part of downtown’s history. And it should have a place in its future, too. Who knows, in 20 or 30 years time, some silly preservationist with more money than sense just might pry that brick off Home Federal’s front and put back the glass.