Pryor Brown: Can a Parking Garage Be Historic?

Only one historic building has been demolished downtown in this century. Three more proposed demolitions of intact pre-war buildings have come to the fore in the last few days. Up this week, before the Downtown Design Review Board, is the Pryor Brown Parking Garage.

Some scoff at the very idea that a parking garage might ever be "historic." I'd certainly like to sympathize with the scoffers.

I'd be happy if we could find a way to believe that parking cars was irrelevant to American history. But parking does seem extraordinarily important to a great many. In terms of the amount of money and real estate we devote to it, parking automobiles may be more important to Americans than music, or football, or religion. Looking at how we use our resources, historians of the future may get the impression that parking our automobiles is the main thing we did.

The National Building Museum in Washington recently hosted a display about the history of parking garages called "House of Cars." I missed it, but it was said to be unexpectedly interesting. No one knows who invented the parking garage, or when the first one appeared. But it looks like there aren't many in the nation that are older than Pryor Brown. It was built in two stages, 1925 and 1929. The building once hailed as America's oldest parking garage, a 1918 structure in Chicago, was torn down eight years ago, after a long controversy. The oldest known parking garage in Los Angeles—a city that owns up to the value of parking garages—dates from 1925.

Whether it's one of America's oldest or not, Pryor Brown is not just a parking garage, and that's why it has become relevant in recent years, in discussing the future of downtown. It's a mixed-use parking garage; it contains several street-level commercial spaces, used by a variety of businesses over the years, from print shops to beauty parlors to travel agents.

Even though it was there all along, there was a long spell when a mixed-use parking garage apparently seemed impossible. All the parking garages built downtown in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s were single-use, just big concrete boxes to store cars in.

Pryor Brown remained there, quietly and efficiently different. Professor Mark Schimmenti moved here about 20 years ago to teach architecture and urban design at UT, and noticed it right away. He admired Pryor Brown, and put it in the slide show he used around the country, showing what an ideal parking garage should look like.

Pryor Brown emerged as a model for mixed-use parking garages, including the city's successful Locust Avenue parking garage, designed by McCarty Holsaple McCarty. It's likely that many people eat at Pete's, one of downtown's most popular breakfast-lunch restaurants, without even thinking about the fact they're in a parking garage.

Today, Schimmenti still speaks of Pryor Brown enthusiastically as an architecturally distinctive building, a parking garage built to look like a regular urban building, with real windows—and its valet approach made it possible to build the structure with flat floors. These old flat-floored garages, Schimmenti says, are much easier to convert to other uses than are most modern garages.

Its loss, he says, would have a negative impact on the appearance and character of downtown.

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The name alone has quite a heritage, and I sometimes bring it up as an example of the cross-generational resonance of history. It's named not for a merger or partnership, as some assume, but for a remarkable individual. Born on Brown's Mountain in South Knox County around 1849—no one knows for certain, due to records lost during the Civil War—Pryor Brown grew up among livestock, and became known as "one of the South's leading horsemen."

The hard-working kid came to town after the war and quickly found work in livery stables. By the 1890s, he was running his own livery stable here on Church Avenue. After it burned, Brown rebuilt it in 1916 with concrete floors capable of accommodating automobiles, and ran the Pryor Brown Transfer Co., which developed into a sort of privately owned transit center. In those days of multiple vaudeville shows every week, Brown ran a business specializing in moving theatrical sets. He also started Knoxville's first cab company.

Brown didn't like cars, favoring horses always, "the noblest of all animals," he would say. But even as an old man, he could tell which way the wind was blowing. In 1925 he built Knoxville's first ramp-style parking garage, on Market Street. He expanded it along Church in 1929, covering the area of his old livery stable.

Whether some of his concrete-floor 1916 garage still exists in there or not, I don't know, but the attendants there showed me an odd spindle-like device on the floor that they've heard is the remnant of a turntable used to swivel carriages around.

At its height, the big parking garage accommodated upwards of 210 cars; such a big deal at the time, it was known as "The House of Brown." (They don't cram them in quite like that now, and no longer use the fourth floor, due to problems with the roof, but it still holds more than 100 cars at once.)

Pryor Brown was 80 by the time he completed his building, but cherished his corner office, at Market and Church, adorned with framed photographs of his favorite horses.

Back then, the building offered a curiosity: two "gold bricks" high in the wall. Brown had them installed as a sort of joke. They were actually copper, but his crazy Uncle Henry had bought them from a traveling salesman for $3,500, thinking they were solid gold. In the 1930s, they were plainly visible; I've looked, and I'm not sure they still are. Some walls are covered with paneling or paint.

The owner's idea is to demolish the building, resulting in an entire city block of surface parking, 57 more surface spaces on the ground. We've torn down dozens of buildings for the surface-parking god. This is a rare demolition that would result in a net decrease in available parking spaces.

Let's find some way not to do this.