A Large and Handsome Store

The rebirth of G.W. Albers' old soda fountain, as an ice-cream parlor

This latest development on Market Square might have thrown folks off in the late 19th century: raising a shingle at No. 14, painted with the words Marble Slab. Back then, when Knoxville was developing a reputation as the Marble City, another business on the Square specialized in marble slabs. At W.B. Fenton's, which was at 33 Market Square, a team of sculptors worked every day carving marble slabs, sometimes with scrollwork and other elaborate Victorian flourishes, and inscribing them with the names of the recent dead. Former New Yorker Fenton and his team were proud of their work, regionally famous for it, and would have eyed this development across the Square with some curiosity. You can almost hear them muttering, "Let's see what you've got."

Of course, this new Marble Slab turns out to be, of all things, an ice-cream parlor, and something that hard-working men who would never live to hear of air conditioning might respect. There were ice cream parlors and soda fountains on the Square even back then; in fact, there was a soda fountain right here at No. 14. After a hot day of slaving over a crucifix or angel or some rich lady's ornate marble slab, Mr. Fenton's stoneworkers might have stopped in at the future Marble Slab for some refreshment—sarsaparilla, Dr. Fizzard's Elixir, or maybe that peculiarly stimulating new brown stuff from Atlanta, Coca-Cola.

People have been wishing for another ice cream parlor on Market Square, I guess, ever since the last one closed. Okay, the new Marble Slab is a chain-franchise place, which to purists is anathema to the spirit of Market Square, mecca for locally owned eccentricity, and shops that can't be mistaken for any other. Chains belong in West Knoxville, goes the thinking, on some interstate exit, not downtown, and least of all on old Market Square.

Even though you could argue that when West Knoxville was nothing but honeysuckle and cow pastures, Market Square introduced the national chain store to Knoxville, when a New York-based firm called the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. opened a store right opposite this spot in 1896. If you don't like chains, blame Market Square's famous liberality for letting them in the door.

Notwithstanding its chaininess, an ice cream parlor may be an apt use of this particular historic space known for 130 years as 14 Market Square.

The two-story brick building stands out from its neighbors, thanks to the tiara-like pediment on top: kind of an odd thing, if you look at it, a good deal more complicated than it needs to be. The place was, for many years, a prominent drugstore run by one George Washington Albers, and it was pretty fancy.

He was less well-known than his younger brother, Andrew Jackson Albers, who founded a wholesale drug company that would be a major player in the regional pharmaceutical industry into the 1990s. The two brothers were born in Ohio, sons of a German immigrant from Cologne who, like some other immigrants of the day, named his children after American patriots, as if to ease their transition into the new country. Both fought with the Union during the Civil War, and both attended the Cincinnati College of Pharmacy.

The younger Albers came to Knoxville at the end of the Civil War, and established himself with the Gay Street wholesale drug firm known as Sanford, Chamberlain, and Albers. Maybe George envied his kid brother's successes down south; a few years after the war, he followed. Sometime in the 1870s, G.W. split off and opened his own place on the east side of Market Square.

G.W. Albers was, according to an 1884 business guide, "a thoroughly skilled, scientific and practical druggist and pharmacist.... He possesses the confidence and esteem of the medical profession in an eminent degree." He was content to remain in the retail business, but was as extravagant as he could be within the confines of 14 Market Square. (He apparently used the second floor, too.) With Albers and five full-time assistants, the drugstore was much respected, with "unquestionably the largest retail trade in East Tennessee," according to an 1884 business guide, in "one of the neatest and most attractive establishments in this trade... a large and handsome store, which is tastefully fitted up."

Even thought it was the era when cocaine was a popular over-the-counter remedy, and Albers also sold "choice cigars" and "pure wines and liquors for medicinal purposes," the most popular attraction at Albers may have been his enormous soda fountain. It had to be something special to compete with Peter Kern's well-established soda fountain across the way, and apparently it was a wonder to behold, literally a fountain of soda. People came in the door just to have a look at it.

If G.W. wasn't quite the big-business honcho A.J. was, he became more involved in community life. He was an elected alderman, off and on, from 1874 to 1889; at the time, he didn't even have to cross a street to go to meetings, which were in a town hall located on the northern end of the Square. You could buy everything you needed on the Square, and he lived just one block away, to the north, in a tree-shaded frame house at what was then the corner of Prince and Reservoir. He never needed any sort of transportation, never really had to roam as far away as Gay Street unless he got a wild hair.

Albers ran his place at 14 Market Square until about 1901 when, suffering some health problems at age 60, he sold out. His old establishment remained a drugstore for more than three decades to come, known as Market Square Drugs, eventually Square Drugs.

Drugstores were, as they would be for a few generations to come, places to come and hang out, as this new ice-cream parlor appears to be on a warm day. George Washington Albers might approve of the general idea, though I suspect he might regard the interior decor a trifle plain.