secret_history (2006-49)

Requiem for the Fulton Plant

The elusive reason why a historic factory may be doomed

by Jack Neely

The Fulton Factory’s being torn down, starting this month. The heavy equipment’s already there. The demolition permit has been duly filled out, and city officials say there’s nothing they can do to stop it. As of this week, they still don’t know why.

You know it; it’s at the foot of the Strip, across from Tyson Park, the first address listed on Kingston Pike as it emerges from Cumberland Avenue. The factory, better known to a generation or two as Robertshaw Controls, is bigger than it looks from the pike; you can get a better idea of its size by looking at it across Third Creek from the bike trail. It goes on and on. It’s nearly half a million square feet.

Some regard it as an eyesore, and in its current condition, parts of it aren’t much for looks. But a big chunk of it’s fascinating, in a prewar industrial cubist sort of way, and, for my money, more historic than most buildings that make the National Register.

Though the front part of the factory has been painted white for decades, it’s built of brick. Inside, it has large rooms of various sizes, with hardwood floors of thick, broad planks. It’s that original 1917 factory, established by inventor-industrialist Weston Fulton.

He came here as a young meteorologist from Alabama connected to the U.S. weather station here when, sometime before 1904, he invented a startlingly useful device he called the sylphon. It revolutionized the heating and cooling industry. Sylphons went into early automobile thermostats; later, less poetic generations called it the “flexible metal bellows” but what they were still making in the Fulton plant just last year was the same thing Fulton invented over a century ago.

He made the first ones at a machine shop on White Avenue near 11th, so successfully that, just before World War I, he built this larger factory.

Sylphons manufactured here in this building were credited for the first effective anti-U-boat depth charges in World War I. The factory was called into military duty again in World War II, for a wide variety of products, including the top-secret Norden bomb sight. The Fulton plant won the U.S. government’s highest commendation for wartime factories, the Army-Navy E for Excellence award, an appreciation signed by President Roosevelt. Its national significance didn’t end with the war; also manufactured in this building were controls for NASA’s space shuttles, vacuums for manufacturing computer chips, and all the valves on the Alaska oil pipeline.

Most abandoned industrial sites aren’t much beloved. Tear them down, and nobody cares much. But there aren’t many factories standing that were established by the guy who invented what they produced, and in this case, it’s a product still widely in use. There’s probably at least one sylphon in your house, and another one in your car. (A descendent of the company still manufactures Fulton’s invention, at a new plant at Forks of the River.)

Weston Fulton was a progressive civic leader in the ’20s, serving for a time as vice mayor, and was active in the early Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association. Fulton High is named for him. He famously owned more than 120 patents. According to a national directory of gravesites, Fulton’s one of the half-dozen most famous people buried in Knoxville. He’s buried at Highland Memorial; he had his office in the Fulton factory.

The purpose for which his buildings are being demolished is a mystery to almost everybody I talked to. Just tracking down somebody to ignore my calls took a few days. The deed for the property is listed in the name of “GPI Interim, Inc.” of Nashville; the corporation acquired the property in 2003. The operator tells me there’s no such listing in Nashville now. The demolition permit, originally filed about three months ago, is in the name of GPI Interim of Foxboro, Mass. Judging by the web, they’re an obscure outfit. And again, there’s no listing in the Foxboro directory. I got a Massachusetts phone number from documents filed with the city, but when I tried to call it, I got only a personal recorded greeting from a Duane Wanty. He didn’t return my calls. Through a reference on the web, I found his email address; that didn’t work, either. Last week, the reporter for the daily had the same experience.

Several I spoke with in local government and at UT remark that the secrecy of the whole proceeding is unusual and strange. High-placed officials say the city has been completely in the dark about the project. It wasn’t on Knox Heritage’s radar. Officials with the Metropolitan Planning Commission say they’re not aware that anyone has conducted a comprehensive assessment of the Fulton site or studied the option of renovating the buildings. Several are convinced the university must be behind the recent developments, perhaps through one of the shadowy Go-Vols cabals, but prominent UT officials profess perfect mystification. Until last Thursday, most didn’t know the buildings were about to be demolished.

Finally, through a friend of a friend, I got in touch with a local environmental engineer who didn’t want to be named. He said he couldn’t tell me everything he knew, even off the record, but that GPI Interim was perhaps fictional front for the real owner, who he knew to be a “major international corporation.”

I was starting to suspect some sort of international conspiracy of silence like The Da Vinci Code , but better written.

Sometimes it’s hard to separate underhandedness from honest arrogance. GPI Interim turns out to be a holding company; Wanty, up in Foxboro, really represents the global industrial corporation Invensys. Formed in a merger between BRT and Siebe, the British auto-parts concern which had bought Robertshaw in 1986, London-based Invensys, alias Siebe, alias GPI Interim, has been in control of the property for 20 years now.

I tracked down Duane Graves, local consultant for environmental-

It sounds like the prospect of saving the buildings apparently was never on the table. Graves speculates the large, open, uninsulated rooms wouldn’t lend themselves to renovations—but of course several downtown renovations in recent years have started out that way. In fact, in some renovation projects, demolishing the original interior floors is the first big job.

Graves says Invensys isn’t much known for preservation anyway. “Their corporate philosophy is to minimize liability wherever possible,” he says. Graves says he studied the site over the last couple of years. He says there was typical industrial pollution on the site, but nothing especially unusual. Some contaminated solids had already been removed when he began working on the project. “A little lead, mercury, superficial stuff,” he says, all of it now gone. In studying groundwater, they did find some cleaning solvents. He expects the property will be available for a wide variety purposes and expects there to be restrictions mainly on excavation on site. Though he doesn’t claim to represent the owner or any prospective buyer, he says it would be appropriate for offices and retail. “It’s an awkward spot for residential,” he says, “but it’s possible, if the university bought it, that they could build dormitories there.”

He’s a little more leery about keeping the historic building. Even if a site appears clean, he says, “There can still be ghosts in the closet.”

Graves says they’ll be selling the land through a Northeastern real-estate company.

I doubt anyone in Massachusetts or the UK would know or care much about the potential of a historic building in Knoxville, Tenn., or the preservationist climate that might make it viable. Several facts make the building historic, but the one of the factory’s greatest values is as evidence that Knoxville’s story is not as simple as it seems. Lately, newcomers typically find it easy to assume Knoxville was just a ragged clot that coagulated around UT. There’s less and less conspicuous evidence that what once made the city hum was industry. Until about 50 years ago, the Fulton plant alone employed more people than UT taught.

The building has more historical detail than you can see from the pike. I had a good look at the building a few years ago and was amazed to see much of this otherwise modern industrial plant still had machinery resting on apparently very sturdy hardwood floors of broad planks, of a sort you just don’t see anymore, anywhere, boards planed from the hearts of ancient trees. No more where they came from.

People mention industrial contamination with grim fatalism. I’ve never completely understood why a building can be considered safe to work in—in this case, as recently as last year—but not safe to sleep in. (Graves says it’s partly a matter of OSHA-mandated monitoring that takes place in workplaces.) Conversions of industrial sites do happen, though, if not much in Knoxville. In the last few years, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and other cities have seen enormous old heavy-industrial factories profitably reborn as clusters of residences, as many as 500 units under one roof.

The frustrating thing is that nobody’s even considered it. I spoke to several prominent local deep-pocketed developers who say they’d be very interested in investigating the prospect of renovating the Fulton factory, especially located where it is, more or less wedged into UT’s campus. As one told me, students would generally rather live in an interesting old factory—something plausibly funky , for lack of a better word—than an institutional dorm. Preservation-minded developers haven’t had the opportunity to have a look at the Fulton factory, but they say that in our newfound preservationist climate, these dozen-odd acres could be more valuable with the buildings intact.

And considering the company is spending $2 million just to tear it down, you’d think maybe there might be some money available to clean it up further.

 But ours is not to reason why. Tennesseans make a totem of property rights and imagine that in doing so we do honor to our ruggedly independent ancestors. But our rugged individualism repeatedly calls us to surrender to out-of-state companies to whom Knoxville and its heritage is nothing but a profit-or-loss item on an annual report.

So it is that this month, Knoxville’s most historic industrial building, on property right in the midst of UT’s campus, is entirely at the mercy of factions well outside of Knoxville. They almost got it taken care of before anyone here could even express an opinion.