The Medical Arts and Architecture: Rehab of Main Street Landmark, Its Architect, and the End of an Era

Downtown's residential wave is finally lapping at Main Street. The Medical Arts Building—that tall, beatific jazz-age tower underused and underappreciated for years—is getting rehabbed, and that's good news. I'm not sure what to call the Medical Arts Building's exterior style, a gothic-cool pattern formed in vanilla terra-cotta tiles; it looks to me like art nouveau as it was just about a week before it morphed into art deco.

The 10-story building has marble walls, terrazzo floors, mahogany doors, brass elevators, and it's not much like anything else in town. It may be the best-known surviving work of the firm of Manley and Young, a name that once graced stylish schools and churches around the region, as well as the Cocke County Courthouse and the old Sevierville Jail.

Most secondary sources say Manley and Young was based in Lexington, Ky. They did have an office there. But city directories and obituaries affirm that for most of his career, the lead architect of that firm, Mr. Fred Manley, lived and worked in Knoxville. In the late '20s he and his wife lived in Maplehurst, near the Manley & Young office, when Henley was as easy to cross by foot as Locust is. He could walk to the Medical Arts corner in about four minutes at an amble.

Born in western Massachusetts in 1879, Fred Manley was 12 when he moved to Harriman, Tenn., with his parents, in the days when Harriman was the new prohibitionist-industrialist Eden. As a young man he worked in Harriman as a bank clerk and made enough money to go to college. The story goes that in 1900 Manley filled his satchel with a few hundred in cash, got on his bicycle, and rode to Knoxville. Here he enrolled himself in engineering school at the University of Tennessee. Upon graduation, he traveled some, studied architecture as an apprentice, and in 1909 opened his own firm in Lexington. He formed a partnership with a New Yorker named Charles Bransford Young, whom he left to handle the Lexington work—they were doing a lot of tobacco warehouses in those days—while Manley himself moved back to Knoxville.

By the 1920s, he was well-known for large public buildings, like the original Fort Sanders Hospital. He designed the old Union bus terminal building on Gay Street, the Smithson baseball stadium, and the Riviera Theatre. Several were Knoxville icons of the era, but almost everything he designed back then has been torn down or compromised beyond recognition. By the time he died at his South Knoxville home in the first days of 1956, he'd already lived to see some of his big buildings demolished. Just a couple have survived into 21st-century Knoxville, including the Gray-Knox Marble Co., which has gotten some recent attention thanks to UT's surprising purchase of it.

The Medical Arts Building may be his most conspicuous work anywhere.

It was originally intended to be a major edifice, a double tower, 13-story structure, but the story goes that the crash of '29 amended Manley's design, shaved off the top three stories and the second tower. It tumbled through several owners as it was built, and wasn't completed until 1932. The builder, Earl Worsham Sr., established his offices there, as did Manley himself, on the second floor. Architects like to be in their own buildings.

But medical professionals were attracted to what was billed as "the most outstanding and completely equipped medical building in the entire South." It was once the main office to about 70 physicians, several of them names that resonate in modern medical groups.

It was one of several projects of the Coolidge-Hoover era that forced residents off Main Street, along with the post office building and First Baptist Church. Maybe it's poetic justice that it's now aimed at bringing residents back.

It'll be interesting to see more residents in this southern quarter of downtown, which is not nearly as heavily populated as the parts north of Clinch. Main Street can look like a misnomer on a Saturday, or any day after 6 p.m. Almost all of the street is devoted to banking and the courts, which never host happy hours. Until the 1930s, Main was half residential, and maybe it will be again.

But as great as all that is, it's hard not to hate the fact that, after 84 years, the Medical Arts Building is kicking out the last of the actual Medical Artists, including my dentist. There weren't that many left. Over the decades, most of its doctors gravitated toward hospitals and other larger facilities. By the 1970s, the Medical Arts Building was notably less medical than it had once been.

It seems as if, given that its name is carved impressively in terra cotta on the side of the building, it would be nice to keep at least one handy, but it sounds like they're going to need to gut most of the building.

Sure, its lobby always offered a mixed message. The healers were upstairs. But alongside the old PRESCRIPTIONS window, the old 1920s-style lobby still advertises counters boldly designated, in a jazz-age font, "CANDY" and "SODA." Always shuttered in my memory, they've never tempted me on my way to the dentist.

I've been getting my teeth attended to in that building for about 10 years, previously with the late Dr. Rick Gallaher, a fine man and an interesting and curious conversationalist. He ran his office as a family operation, with his wife at the front desk.

When you can just walk to the dentist, down the sidewalk, around the corner, without having to get in a car, I've found there's less dread involved. And when it's over, your too-clean teeth don't feel nearly as alien if you can just go downstairs to Sam's and break them in with a grilled-cheese sandwich, some fries with mustard, and a Coke. But Sam's, formerly known as The Other Pete's, closed a couple of months ago. As in dentistry, progress rarely comes without pain.