The Case for Saving Two Downtown Buildings

A church looks to expand, at the expense of some historic neighbors

These days, most of downtown's older buildings are owned by folks who at least feel kindly toward them. A few preservationist developers have made a good living proving that, despite any rumored recession, there's a strong residential demand for almost all older architecture, especially pre-WW II buildings. Downtown, demolition applications have become as rare as jaywalking citations.

So it was a little startling when a demolition application came in for a couple of nice early 1920s brick buildings on Walnut Street, across from the library. The one at 712 is a pretty two-story townhouse sort of building; the one next door is a three-story, simpler in style, maybe a little more businesslike. The buildings are in the middle of the block, adjacent to the large mid-century Walnut Building, and separated from the old Episcopal church by an alley.

It's not a famous block, maybe, but it's one of the last little scraps of downtown left to remind us what downtown looked like before the ascendancy of the parking lot, now the most common use of downtown property.

St. John's has owned both buildings for a few years, and now would like to tear them down.

St. John's Episcopal Cathedral—it's listed just as "St. John's Church" on the demolition application—is one of downtown's gems, both for its stony Oxford-style architecture and for its history. Well over a century's worth of Knoxville's most prominent citizens have loved the place. For literary pilgrims who want to see a building intimately associated with author James Agee, it's about the only one still standing. Agee was baptized here in 1910. Later, he sang in the choir.

For generations, St. John's seemed happy on its venerable corner. It had existed wholly on its corner lot, less than a quarter of a block, since the 1840s.

Only in the last 30 years has the old church been aggressively on the move, buying up buildings nearby, and tearing them down, or threatening to. The antebellum Thomas Humes house, one of downtown's oldest houses, yielded to a major church expansion in the 1980s. The church roughly tripled its downtown footprint, to include a courtyard and a playground and a great room and a corner Episcopal bookstore, which has since closed.

In the 1990s, the church turned its sights on the large and interesting old Mann's Mortuary (later Volunteers of America) building on Church Avenue, with its stained glass and porte-cochère. St. John's tore it down just for surface parking. Other buildings, including the large Cherokee Building, once inhibited St. John's parking-lot expansion dreams. Saved by vigorous efforts by preservationists, the Cherokee's now a popular, upscale residential building.

I have this habit, whenever I hear about prospective demolitions. I find myself in the McClung Historical Collection, looking up old addresses. On the register, the signature just before mine was that of Hollie Cook, intrepid staff researcher for Knox Heritage. I knew where I'd find her, doing exactly what I came there to do. A broken arm can make juggling big books and taking notes problematic. With Hollie working on the same subject, I was grateful to be able to crib a little.

The brick buildings targeted now have been here since Walnut was a populous residential street known for townhouses. The grand old Second Presbyterian Church stood right across aptly named Church Street from Church Street Methodist. Three of Knoxville's biggest churches were right here, within sight of each other. And it's the damnedest thing: None of them had parking lots. People walked—or, rather, it being Sunday, strolled, whether from home or a parking place. Only decades later, when downtown was seen as vacant and scary on weekends, did churches start worrying about maximizing adjacent parking.

These two buildings on Walnut were mixed-used buildings for most of their history, residential apartments upstairs, offices downstairs. Today we call that New Urbanism; back then, it was just sensibleness. The people who lived in these buildings were middle class, mostly single professionals and tradespeople: a barber, a nurse, a railroad clerk, a teacher at Tennessee School for the Deaf, several widows. Maybe some were parishioners.

Hollie thinks the smaller, prettier one was built around 1921-22 to be a two-story residence for one widow named Elizabeth Anderson. It's one of only a handful of buildings left downtown built to be residences. I can name only three or four others.

Mrs. Anderson lived there just a few years. After that, the building and its next-door neighbor attracted mostly doctors, surgeons, dentists. By 1927, long-term tenant Dr. John Quincy Adams West moved in. Originally from Grainger County, he studied medicine in New York, Chicago, and Europe, eventually specializing in proctology; he always had his offices here, and for several years joined the two buildings as one, with his son, Frederick, a partner. Dr. JQA West lived in a large mansion on Laurel Avenue near 17th (long since demolished, of course), until his death in 1942.

Later, the taller building at 710 Walnut—by 1947, it was sometimes called the Professional Building—housed the dental offices of Dr. L.T. Coffey for more than 30 years, as Number 712 was for almost as long the office of Dr. John D. Moore, who was for a long time the official physician for the city school system. Both buildings were used mainly for physicians' offices until about 1980. The Interdenominational Bible Institute has been headquartered at 712 for most of the period since.

There was a notable exception to the pair's medical heritage in one early tenant at 712 Walnut: the Dempster Brothers Manufacturing Co. George Dempster, the colorful inventor, future city manager, and mayor, made his office at the handsome two-story building in the mid-1920s. He eventually earned 25 patents; I don't know whether he did any actual inventing here. His most famous invention, the Knoxville product that changed the world, was his Dempster Dumpster. About 10 years after he moved out of the building, Dempster patented his innovation.

Just saying. The matter goes before the Downtown Design Review Board soon, and I hope the discussion inspires some better ideas.