secret_history (2006-52)

Buildings, Up and Down

Some year-end musings about architecture and drunks

by Jack Neely

The JFG Coffee factory on Jackson Avenue, which was largely responsible for downtown Knoxville’s distinctively robust aroma for about 80 years, is finally empty. Nobody downtown much wanted them to leave; the decision was made for practical purposes. JFG chose to consolidate their operation in a more modern facility already in operation about two miles to the west, off Sutherland Avenue. JFG roasted its last coffee beans there this past fall.

In some places in America, and some parts of Knoxville, an abandoned factory might sit vacant for years, even decades, before anybody bothered to do anything with it. Not in downtown Knoxville, at least not this year.

It was not surprising to find out that the individual who bought the place was one David Dewhirst. Generations of the future, I suspect, may believe him to have been a Wizard. David says he means to develop the JFG plant in mixed-use manner, mostly residential, as is his habit. He aims to have it completed in about a year.

A surprisingly quick turnaround for an industrial site. But when your industrial waste is mainly burned coffee beans, maybe remediation is no big deal. Dewhirst has also purchased another old industrial building on Jackson on the other side of Gay, and has similar plans for it.

We’ll miss JFG, but its absence may be good for the coffee-house trade, as downtown goes into withdrawal.

My friend Chris Wohlwend shared a fond memory of the Church Avenue Viaduct, the 1930s concrete bridge demolished this month. As I mentioned, the bridge was best known to a half-century’s worth of reporters for the two dailies as one of the cheapest places to park downtown. Even when reporters don’t know anything else, they know where the cheap places to park are. The meters on the farther half charged less than those on the nearer half, so over the years, hundreds of journalists got to know the old bridge pretty well.

Wohlwend, who now teaches journalism at UT, worked for the old morning Journal as a makeup editor, around 1970. Its offices were in the top of the awkwardly big brick building at the corner of Church and State, which also housed the News-Sentinel .

 “Up in the engraving department,” Wohlwend recalls, “we’d lean out the window and yell at all the good-looking women getting off work.” Because it was a morning paper, a lot of the staff worked overnight, and a night-shift police reporter was seen parking his car on the Church viaduct and staggering out of it. The reporter is long deceased, but Wohlwend asked that we not disclose his name. He was well known and much beloved to the staff.

 “He was obviously really drunk,” Wohlwend says. And it was his luck that a policeman happened to be passing by on the viaduct. He arrested the reporter for public drunkenness, and took him to the police department, down the street.

Wohlwend says the reporter made only one plea, which was, as far as the defendant was concerned, persuasive: “I can’t be drunk,” he said. “I’m on my way to work!”

In recent years, the term façadectomy has become faddish, applied often pejoratively to crypto-preservationist projects that preserve the façade and demolish everything else. I like the term, but from an etymological point of view, I think it’s more properly applied to what Home Federal’s doing on Market Street.

They removed their old modernist façade, like you’d remove inflamed tonsils, and are replacing it with a new brick one designed to look a century or two older than the previous one.

I have good friends who say they hate it, but the Home Federal facade project, nearly finished on Market Street, doesn’t look half bad to me. Seen from the Krutch Park perspective, it looks almost— federal . Architects are such punsters.

Over the years, I've cringed as urbane newcomers ridiculed that building’s previous persona, the ’60s fashion-victim modernist design of its shiny orange plastic-looking facade. Like so many of the buildings of my childhood, it looked as if it could have been assembled from a giant Erector Set. Even its Go Vols orange seemed as if it would have been more at home in a toy box.

A bank is supposed to look stable and dignified, after all, and even if the new façade is cliché, it does look dignified. Maybe dignity itself is an exalted cliché. Just lately, though, preservationists have been taking a second look at ’60s architecture that struck us, not so long ago it seems, as tacky. Knox Heritage weighed in on the subject, broadly, in its last Fragile 15 listing. Without naming names, but lots of winks and nods, the group made a point of mentioning “mid-century modern” commercial buildings. Much of that genre has been lost this year. The slow work on the Crystal Building, just a few paces away from Home Federal, is turning a bold modernist building into a tame postmodernist one.

So far, the losses are little mourned by the public at large. The old IBM building at Kingston Pike and Concord had its eloquent defenders among architects and preservationists, as an ideal ’50s-style modernist building. Most mere civilians I’ve talked to agree it looks better gone.

I know some preservationists, though, mostly younger than me, who regret the loss of Home Federal’s bright modernist façade. It did give a sort of bouncy aesthetic diversity to that block. But at 48, I may be too old to get it.

Both architecture and architectural preservation is partly a matter of fashion, and poor Home Federal seems always out of step. If they'd done this facade work 10 or 15 years ago, before the gathering interest in modernist commercial buildings, they'd have been unanimously cheered.

I still regret the 2005 loss of the Sprankle around the corner as perhaps the biggest mistake downtown of this century so far, and with less-distinguished, less convenient old buildings turn into upscale condos all over the neighborhood, even the Home Federalists may be beginning to regret that decision. (Some note that the new skin on the Market Street façade bears an eerie resemblance to the Sprankle.) But I have to admit that if they'd torn down the Sprankle 20 years ago, before the widespread enthusiasm for renovating early 20th-century buildings, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, and people would have complained only about the dust.

Couldn’t help but admire some aesthetic commandos in Detroit who go around town targeting blighted vacant buildings at night, painting them an awful color so garish the city has no choice but to fix them up or tear them down. Their color of choice to appall the citizenry is bright orange.