The Mystery of the Soundproof Chamber: A Substantial Answer to a Recent Riddle

Back in February I described a mystery on an upper floor of the Tailor Lofts project. Undergoing a comprehensive overhaul, the 1876 brick building on the corner of Gay and Union was originally home to Sanford, Chamberlain, and Albers pharmaceutical company. Maybe no one's old enough to remember that, but depending on your age, you may recall it as the Spence Shoes building or the Arby's building. One of its longest uses may have been its second-floor tailor shop (Mr. Slomski was just the last of several), hence "Tailor Lofts." The developer, Conversion Properties, is rehabbing that floor for studio residences, and wanted to pick something historically apt. It's a good name.

But the mystery's up on the third floor, and has nothing to do with tailoring. It's a compact soundproof room, right in the middle of the big floor, with old-fashioned acoustical tiles, and a window into it. It looks like a small radio studio.

Back during the mid-century heyday of live radio, the era of Acuff and Atkins and the Everlys, about a dozen other Gay Street buildings hosted radio stations, at one time or another: the Holston, the Farragut, the Andrew Johnson, the Arcade, the Sterchi. But, as far as I know, this building never did. The third floor's puzzling occupant was an institution of learning called the Tennessee Radio Service School. City directories suggest it was there from about 1947 to 1950.

I learned just that much. I assumed it was another naive startup that just didn't make it. One of those thousands of vaporous historical details that hardly rise to the level of footnote.

Never jump to conclusions. Bradley Reeves, the hardworking historian/wizard at the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, gets unexpected donations of broadcast and recording oddities almost daily, and is always sorting through them, finding surprises. Recently he found a reel-to-reel recording of a live performance by a high-school-age Dolly Parton from maybe half a century ago, the earliest known recording of a legendary voice.

A few weeks ago, he got something older still, a professionally produced 12-page booklet heralding "a REAL FUTURE ahead" at the Tennessee Radio Service School—at "430 1/2 S. Gay Street, Knoxville, Tenn."

It was a more elaborate operation than I'd pictured, run by a visionary-looking guy in a pencil-thin mustache, A. Robert Faulkner. The TRSS was aimed partly at the tide of World War II veterans returning home looking for careers. The school was qualified to accept GI Bill benefits. "Age really has nothing to do with success when a man is determined to get ahead," it promised.

Faulkner employed a faculty of seven, six men and one woman—earnest, well-dressed folks as depicted in the booklet, professionals who look like they know something. "Yes, TRSS instructors know their business, yet their teaching methods are so simple and so interesting that each course is easily understandable. In one class you might be studying under a licensed 1st-class broadcast engineer, in another under a radar expert...."

Its training director was Preston Edmonds, "one of the pioneers in U.S. radio." And for all I know, maybe he was. One of the other teachers was more familiar to Brad, by reputation. By 1953, apparently after the TRSS era, J.E. "Joe" Broyles was working for WTSK, one of Knoxville's first television stations, and had a reputation as an "engineering genius" who made a prototype videotape machine using reel-to-reel audiotape.

The TRSS curriculum ranged from a three-month course in announcing, radio writing, studio-operator technology, radio servicing­—to advanced classes in radio engineering, radio telegraphy, and "Frequency Modulation and Television." All years before Knoxville had its own television station.

In the booklet are a few pictures of the place, including one that may well show that soundproof room up on the third floor. The TRSS offered two sets of classes, one from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., one from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. I can't tell how big it was, but one photo shows 17 students in headphones, apparently taking a test.

It was an exciting time in broadcasting, especially in Knoxville, where just down the sidewalk, young performers like Chet Atkins, Flatt & Scruggs, and several others were just getting their start in the live-radio studios of Gay Street. Archie Campbell, Lowell Blanchard, and Cas Walker, first known to most Knoxvillians as radio personalities, were becoming prominent citizens. Even future pop singer Tennessee Ernie Ford was here, working as a radio announcer just a block away from the school. Radio was the ticket to fortune and national fame, or sometimes just local politics. And everybody knew television was just around the corner.

By 1950, the radio school moved north, to Broadway in the Emory Place area, on the northern fringe of downtown. Then, in 1953, they vanish. That's a sad story, I thought, this school that pioneered television technology, dying just as the first television stations arrive in Knoxville. Maybe there was too much competition for education in the rapidly changing and suddenly crowded field.

But I took the trouble to look up the 1989 obituary for Mr. Faulkner. From it, I learned that, in fact, his ambitious postwar radio school didn't close. It just changed its name. The school born in that third floor on Gay Street became known as the Tennessee Institute of Electronics, which eventually settled in on Tazewell Pike, under the administration of Ronald Rackley, a veteran of the original radio school, and later his son, Richard. About a decade ago it became the Fountainhead College of Technology, having evolved into a computer-oriented program.

Just this year Fountainhead opened its new school in West Knox, out off Pellissippi Parkway. They now have about 250 students enrolled. They won the 2013 Metro Pulse balloting for Best Technical/Business School.

I'm not sure what you could do with a little soundproof room in an upscale residential building, and Conversion probably had no choice but to remove it. Even though you could say it's the birthplace of an institution.