Monday night, two friendly middle-aged Californians spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the East Tennessee History Center about the building diagonally across the street. The old Farragut Hotel has been a stubborn exception to downtown's revival, emptied of the offices that occupied most of it since its last roomers left in early 1977. Unlike most downtown buildings, the Farragut has been owned by out-of-state developers.
Another California group's long-contemplated apartment development a few years ago finally came to nothing. But this Sacramento-based partnership, Tom Cologna of Pacific Capital Investments, and Brian Larson, a longtime hotelier associated with Halo Hospitality group, has an option to buy the building, and they sound like a different deal altogether. Larson did most of the talking. He said he first became familiar with Knoxville when he was here with a World's Fair-era "task force" involved in the development of the Hilton.
Larson and Cologna seem confident they can compete in a complicated market. Downtown is "under-served by full-service hotels," says Cologna, and the Farragut will have the added bonus of being historic. Knoxville is Tennessee's only city lacking a restored historic hotel.
It's no sure thing. "This is a very difficult project," says Larson, which will require "seven layers" of financial help, including historic tax credits and new-market tax credits.
They led several dozen of us across the street to the building itself. The sole tenant of the Farragut is the French Market. That successful creperie has a long lease, and Cologna says they'll be permitted to stay if they can put up with the construction. Larson conducted the crowd up the steps to some of the hotel's old public spaces—the old dining room, hardly recognizable as such, subdivided for offices--and above it, along steps of pink Tennessee marble, the little-known Oak Room, a better-preserved corner room lined with four arched windows and oak paneling, a good size for a small party or elegant dinner.
"There are a lot of pieces to put back in place," Larson said. "A lot of historical stuff has been ripped out. Wherever we can keep stuff, we will, but there just isn't a lot left."
In this case, historic doesn't just mean old. The Farragut Hotel replaced the elaborately Victorian Imperial, destroyed in a lightning fire in 1916. A cadre of well-heeled Knoxville boosters, Knoxville businessmen Ben Morton, Will Ross, and Hugh Sanford, pushed for building a large new hotel there. They tried to recruit others, but later admitted they were glad they failed. Alone in it, they made a whole lot of money.
They enlisted William Lee Stoddart, a New Jersey architect who was developing a reputation for his Southern hotels. They brought in the Robert Meyer company, from Birmingham, to run it. The project was slowed by World War I.
The big name on the facade sometimes surprises newcomers who associate the word Farragut with a suburban community. The hotel was one of several local institutions named for the Union naval hero in the early 20th century, likely inspired by the nationally heralded visit of Farragut disciple Admiral George Dewey in 1900. By 1919, there was a small rural school named for Farragut, but the name was not otherwise associated with a geographical area. Several businesses named for Farragut were in central Knoxville.
The 200-room hotel opened in early 1919. The Farragut's new restaurant served beluga caviar, oyster bisque, sauteed lamb, chicken sous cloche. The Farragut offered a coffee shop on Gay Street that had a simpler menu, but unlike most coffee shops, it offered filet mignon and finnan haddie. The hotel had a barber shop, a tailor shop, a newsstand and cigar shop, and, in the basement, a billiard hall with 14 tables.
Until the completion of the Andrew Johnson Hotel 10 years later, the Farragut was the largest, finest hotel in the region, and remained competitive for decades.
The hotel advertised an "orchestra" in their restaurant daily at lunch and dinner, like it or not. That was probably just a small combo, but the Farragut can be called the cradle of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. By 1925, its ballroom was the favored venue for KSO founder Bertha Roth Walburn Clark's "Little Symphony," who played Debussy, Puccini, Mozart, and Sibelius there for crowds of 150.
The Farragut is also the birthplace of the Southeastern Conference. It was there, in 1932, during the annual convention of the overlarge Southern Conference, that the new SEC, represented by scores of college administrators, academics, and coaches, organized its formative mutiny.
The New York Yankees, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, stayed there for several days in 1934. Knoxville baseball fans hung around outside the Farragut, hoping to catch a legend on his way to a beer joint.
It became known as a favorite for notable visiting collegiate coaches, including Kentucky's Adolph Rupp and Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd.
One claim to fame was a bellhop, young Joseph Delaney, long before he was famous as an artist in New York.
Those bellhops famously chipped in to help the Great Smoky Mountains National Park project. At the time, Knoxville was the main place to stay near the Smokies, so the project was bound to be good for tips.
Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, spoke at a dinner in his honor at the Farragut in 1951. Future television tycoon Merv Griffin stayed there in 1953, when he was a young singer and actor, in town for a premiere at the Tennessee Theater. Unprepared for a Southern summer, he complained bitterly about its lack of air conditioning.
Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam, stayed there in 1957. In his retinue at the Farragut was Tran Van Don, one of the generals, a conspirator in Diem's assassination six years later.
The characters of Cormac McCarthy's novel, Suttree, aren't the sorts likely to have much use for a fine hotel, but they do favor the cafe and barber shop.
To be friendly, the developers say they want us to share our Farragut memories. Chances are there aren't many around who remember its best stories.