Low-Profile Landmark

A few weeks ago, stories about a proposal to tear down a building on Market Square woke me up without coffee.

The two-story mustard-colored brick building at the northwest corner of the Square, No. 37, is one of the older buildings on the Square. Most recently the home of Gus's restaurant, there's nothing unique about it as a work of architecture; it's late 1800s commercial vernacular—and rather short, at that. It's said to have significant structural problems. Still, it's a Knoxville icon, and irreplaceable.

No building has been completely demolished on Market Square since we began thinking of it as Historic. That in itself makes it hard to contemplate tearing something down now. The last building torn down, No. 10, had been vacant for some time before its demolition, more than 25 years ago; what it was, and what it looked like, is hard to remember.

That's not the case with 37 Market Square. It's been occupied throughout its 130-year history, with some especially well-known businesses. More than a century ago, it was a successful wholesale liquor store run by "General" John F. Horne. A very young soldier during the war, most of which he spent in a Union prison camp, Horne earned the rank much later, through his Confederate veterans' group; he was apparently likeable enough that even old Unionists indulged the distinction. No one alive remembers him. If you want an image of what General Horne looked like, see his grave at Old Gray. The statue of a short, slight man in a cavalier's beard and a Confederate uniform may or may not bear a resemblance.

Gen. Horne died just before the city banned liquor sales in 1907. His old shop then became better known as a restaurant. The proprietor's name was Haralakos Paskalis. Or something like that; in city directories, the same spelling rarely appears twice. He eventually called it the Gold Sun. The Paskalis family ran it for only a few years, and vanish from local records. Later, run by the Cavalaris and Peroulas families, it became one of Knoxville's best-known restaurants.

I always wondered how it got the name. The front is sometimes sunny in the mornings, maybe, but was much less so in its early days, when the giant Market House cast its shadow on it.

I learned just recently, while researching a book about Market Square, that when the Gold Sun opened there was another Greek-run restaurant, diagonally across the Square at No. 8. The then-well-known rival, which opened around 1906, was called the Silver Moon. Gold Sun probably seemed like a challenge, or a joke.

By the 1920s, the Gold Sun may have been the most famous eatery in town, a 24-hour place that didn't even need a lock on the door, known for its versatile menu. Popular with middle-class Knoxvillians, it also became central to Knoxville's lively eastern-Mediterranean community: Greeks liked it because the Gold Sun would cater to off-menu old-country dishes. When Arabic immigrants arrived in the 1920s from Lebanon and what they used to call the Levant, they'd come to the Gold Sun, and the proprietors knew how to fix them up. You could argue that it was Knoxville's first ethnic restaurant.

It was a unique restaurant with a menu that could seem infinite—they were limited only by what was available for sale out on Market Square, and that wasn't limited at all. To any question that began, "Do you have—?" the answer was always yes. Your waiter could step across the alley and get you a haddock, or some fresh kosher sausage, or, if you preferred, a possum, and the guys in the kitchen would do what they could.

For most of the 20th century, a celebrity's visit to Knoxville was never complete without paying homage to the Gold Sun. A list of famous people who visited the place for a good meal would include champion boxer Jack Dempsey, Olympic legend Babe Didrickson, jazz bandleader Guy Lombardo, and, for better or worse, Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle.

In the 1920s and '30s, the restaurant was the campaign headquarters and unofficial Knoxville office of popular Republican Congressman J. Will Taylor, who was involved in getting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park going, among other projects to improve his district. Other regulars included musicians like Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins.

The Gold Sun played a role in entertainment history that sounds like a scene in an old Preston Sturges movie. In 1936, Archie Campbell was more or less a hobo from Bulls Gap who'd had no luck in Knoxville and had just been evicted from his cheap apartment. One bitter cold night, so hungry and desperate he was considering breaking in somewhere, he sought shelter at the all-night Gold Sun, where a good-hearted attendant named Nick let him sleep, and in the morning surprised him with a plate of ham and eggs and coffee. Hoboes rarely get that kind of treatment. Soon, he got a job singing at WNOX, and became Knoxville's favorite comedian. Later—a fact neglected in show-biz bios—he was elected to the Knox County school board. The Grand Old Opry and prime-time stardom were still to come.

And the Gold Sun was familiar to novelist Cormac McCarthy; it makes a couple of cameos in his novel, Suttree, as one of the central character Harrogate's favorite eateries.

All those stories have to do with these brick walls, and not others that might replace them.

If no other space in Knox County has served as a restaurant for fully 100 years, 37 Market Square has. Hardly any building in town has been visited by more human beings, and quite a few of them are fond of these old brick walls. You can't blame some of us for believing there must be an alternative. Other buildings on the Square have been in worse shape, abandoned for years with leaky roofs, and survived with at least their outside walls intact. Fortunately, 37 Market Square is in one of Knoxville's scarce historic-preservation districts. It is, therefore, subject to Historic Zoning Commission approval; we can trust they'll find a solution.