A new year, and to hell with the old one. Was it just bad luck, that year of '13? It was the worst year for historic preservation in my reporting career, and it somehow packed a few fresh disappointments about long-anticipated new projects.
The multiple demolitions on Volunteer Boulevard alone would make it UT's most flattening year in at least three decades. But the same year, the university made it clearer than ever that they do indeed intend to demolish three Victorian houses on White Avenue, including the one-time cause celebre known as The Judge's House, and the childhood home of a Pulitzer Prize winner UT boasts as an alumnus, Bernadotte Schmitt, the most globally notable historian who ever lived in Knoxville.
And we heard for the first time that several dorms are doomed. They may not be missed, and at this writing they've aroused no salvation efforts. But just for the record, they weren't all built in the 1960s, as a newspaper report had it. Shelbourne Towers was an eight-story private apartment building several blocks away from UT when it was built around 1952, on what was then the corner of 20th and Caledonia. For years, it was an upscale place, home to many prominent professionals unrelated to UT. Even Mayor George Dempster lived there for a while in the 1950s. It's a big modernist box, not much to look at, but it's over 60 years old, and eligible for historic tax credits.
Worse, the campus's second-oldest academic building, Estabrook Hall, after a few years when it seemed on the way to salvation, appears threatened again. UT, which touts its 18th-century founding date, has only two academic buildings that date back as far as the 19th century. Is the administration ready to lose half of them?
The same year downtown, St. John's tore down the 1920s Walnut Street buildings. They were only the second and third intact prewar buildings to be demolished downtown in this century, and they were also the only ones so valued by preservationist developers that one was ready to renovate them on behalf of the church by a deal by which the church could profit by allowing them to be operated as upscale residences. All gone now.
We can only hope they were the last. But Pryor Brown Garage, which we never heard was even threatened until 2013, is now in the queue. I don't want to guess about the chances of keeping this 1920s building that's one of the oldest parking garages in the nation, and, through its origins as a livery stable, is a link to the Civil War era. The developer, who's getting a windfall from the city in the form of Suttree's Landing Park, which in the short term will be a public amenity for his south-side properties, is suing the same city for the right to lay down surface parking—which City Council made clear, unanimously, the city doesn't want.
Another century-old building at Broadway and Fifth was torn down just last month. It was not in as good shape as the buildings St. John's tore down, but the fact that it's to be replaced only with a surface parking lot was dismaying.
Then there's the hospital, and plans to tear down four 1890s-1920s buildings in Fort Sanders, ones ostensibly protected by historic zoning.
I'm not for saving everything. It's just that I've lived here long enough to know that whatever we're likely to build won't be worthy of what's lost.
It was a disappointing year for new buildings, too. The Marble Alley project, announced as a sort of city-within-a-city unlike anything I've ever seen, was a vision, something folks might come to Knoxville just to behold. It seemed too good to be true, and it was. What's going in there is an ordinary square private apartment development—and, worse, one with no public access, like street-front retail. It offers little in terms of the elusive link between Market Square and the Old City.
The Baptist Hospital site, from the looks of the first drawings, features nothing much to catch the eye. I've heard regrets about the looks of the hospital, as seen from downtown, for many years. But based on the out-of-state developer's drawings, Bridges at Riverside (Really? Isn't that where most bridges are?) might as well be another hospital.
It's something we're all going to have to look at for the rest of our lives, so you'd like to see something remarkable when we look across that famous river from downtown. Looks like we're not going to get it this lifetime.
Neither project would be out of place on an interstate exit, behind a Taco Bell. All these new projects, including the one for the State Supreme Court site on Henley, are targeting the undergraduate housing market. There's a prejudice, probably correct, that undergrads don't give much of a poop about what buildings look like. They just want something cheap, with a swimming pool and a party room that can be hosed out regularly.
If you say these designs are every bit as good as those of lots of buildings built in Nashville in the '80s, I won't argue. But I had a naive thought: "What does the city architect think about all this?" In fact, there's no city architect on the mayor's staff, and there hasn't been since about 2000. I guess the average taxpayer's probably saving a couple quarters a year on omitting that staffer, and you can't argue with savings. Want some gum?
Yes, the new projects are much better than what's there now—which is, more or less, nothing. Residences are the highest and best use of downtown property, and maybe they'll both spin off interesting new things.
It could be worse. Still, the City of Knoxville should be a more demanding client, I think. It's my New Year's wish that the city and its associated private developers will go back to the drawing boards, take a hard look at their plans, and give us something that's easier to brag about.