secret_history (2006-45)

The Fashion

Unblocked Victorian windows, and the continuing erosion of some downtown services

by Jack Neely

When I first started writing this column, the restoration of a historic building was such a rare thing it always rated a whole column, sometimes a feature story, along with a couple of days’ research at the library, with pictures and interviews. 

Now downtown renovations are happening so fast it’s like an arcade game: an old building renovation project popping up before we ever even notice it’s an old building in need of renovation. The latest at this writing is the two-story brick building at 415 S. Gay Street.

Covered with some kind of ’50s plastic slab for decades, it never looked like any sort of historic building. I’d never even noticed it before. The second floor, and its three tall arched windows, jump out at you, this stark brick relic right between Yee Haw Industries and J’s Mega Mart.

When they first stripped off the exterior, those windows were jammed up with concrete blocks, as was often the case in an era when old buildings were valued mainly for their potential to look like new buildings. On some other renovation projects, like the old J.C. Penney Building across the street, blocked-in windows have worried some architects and engineers who are concerned that the brick might now be dependent on the concrete to bear the load.

But the first time I saw the concrete-blocked windows at this smaller building across the street, they were already being jackhammered away. It only took a few hours. It seems to be holding up.

David Dewhirst, the downtown developer who owns it and decided to strip it down to its core, isn’t sure what he’s going to do with it. He was so impressed with the building, and the surprising space inside, his first notion was to move in.

Judging by the style, 415 S. Gay may be the oldest building on the whole block. In any case, it’s so old that it predates the Era of Easy Research. I’m not sure what purpose it first served.

By 1893, when it appears in the first modern-address list of Gay Street businesses, it was the Douglass Moore & Co., men’s tailors and outfitters. By 1895, it was McTeer Brothers Clothing and Gents’ Furnishings.

Around 1915, the building swapped genders, and decisively; the ground floor sold “Ladies Ready-To-Wear” and was known, with a fetching arrogance, as The Fashion. The second floor was a millinery called the Ross Misses, run by Alice, Clara, and Blanche Ross.

In the 1920s, it was Spence Shoes. In the ’30s and ’40s, it was the Lerner Shops, selling ladies’ wear. In the early ’50s, it was apparently adopted by the S.H. Kress and Co., next door.

It looks battered, partly because pulling off sticky modernist crap usually scars up the brick, but maybe partly from what it has witnessed. The building was here, after all, during the Christmas Saturnalia of 1893, when mobs of erstwhile shoppers rioted in holiday joy, setting off fireworks, firing guns, exploding dynamite bombs and setting a few buildings on fire. It was here in 1897 when the entire opposite side of the street went up in flames, burned for hours, showering cinders on these smaller buildings across the street. It was here in 1904, when the dynamite casks in front of Woodruffs Hardware blew up, flattening everybody on Gay Street and blowing out windows on this side. It was here on Armistice Day, 1918, when ecstatic thousands braved the flu epidemic to swarm Gay Street, firing guns and hanging and burning effigies of the Kaiser. It was here less than a year later, when a crazed white mob in the thousands, and the machine-gun-armed National Guard stormed down the street looting stores for weapons, and looking for black demons. Some of those pocks in the dark brick may be historic.

News about downtown seems to be all upbeat these days. Downtown, I can pay my bank and utility bills, pay my city and county taxes, mail all the rest by the post office, get a suit dry-cleaned, buy birthday cards, renew the tags on my family’s cars, get my watch fixed, get my taxes done, get my teeth cleaned, check out some new videos, do most of my Christmas shopping and buy tape and festive paper to wrap it, all without ever getting in a car. The other day, my daughter bought a dress for an upcoming dance at a downtown shop.

Monthly and yearly bills seem much less intimidating when you pay them in person. Once a month, I walk up and down Gay Street paying people. Hello, banker, hello, clerk. I call it my Sesame Street Day. Sure, I’ll have a cookie.

None of that’s new. All of those services were always available downtown. In spite of the influx of upscale residences, the erosion of services that began decades ago may be continuing. Due to decisions made this year, you can no longer get your driver’s license renewed downtown. Soon you won’t be able to get your tags renewed, either.

As we reported in September, Knox County is, by degrees, moving most of its customer-service offices out of the old county courthouse. In the near future, most of the daily clerical offices will be in drive-up suburban locations with big free parking lots. County Clerk Mike Padgett says it’s what the people want. There are already such options, but he says he gets complaints about the downtown location every day. About parking, of course: the same complaints Cas Walker was getting from his rural customers in the ’40s.

The photo on my current driver’s license was taken in the courthouse, and all the license-plate tags on the cars in my family’s driveway were handed to me across the cool old counter there. We could do it by mail, of course; I prefer to do it in person.

The tag-registration renewal office is an elegant old Victorian room with lofty ceilings, tall windows and a southern exposure that keeps the place sunny, a big long counter, people waiting on one side, clerks busy at work behind it. On a busy day, it can remind you of Degas’ painting of the Cotton Exchange in New Orleans.

Why people would complain about it is one of those enigmas in the human character.

The old courthouse, built in 1886, is a Knoxville icon. A few years ago, stretching for something that could be a symbol for the county, administrators approved a symbol for street signs across the county, from Corryton to Farragut. The people who live in Knox County, almost half a million of them now, don’t have many things in common, but one is this old courthouse. That’s the courthouse tower on all those street signs, bisecting a rising sun.

But now, chances are most of us won’t have any business ever walking into that iconic building unless we’re in some kind of trouble.