secret_history (2007-07)

The Public Cost of Private Property Rights

A few notes about the late Jackson Avenue Warehouses

by Jack Neely

If it weren't so appalling, the destruction of large old buildings by fire might have seemed almost beautiful. There's a melancholic grace to the way large old brick buildings burn. They come apart in veils, and what remains is so tall and slender, almost delicate, it looks from some angles as if it could exist only underwater.

It leaves sloping shapes you rarely see except in pictures of Atlanta in 1864, Richmond in 1865. Brick walls built before the era of steel framing erode, giving the impression of funereal drapery, exactly like the marble shrouds on a Victorian tomb.

There aren't many large buildings left that were built without steel, and three of them disappeared last week.

Built in the 1890s and the early 20th century, the McClung Warehouses were home, for several decades, to one of Knoxville's most dynamic wholesale concerns, C.M. McClung & Co. It began in the 1880s as a hardware company, but over the years took on other lines--stoves first, then mine and mill equipment, then paper products, then some early electrical equipment, including radio supplies. By the mid-20th century, it was easier to guess at what they did carry than what they didn't.

When masons mortared the bricks that came apart last week, among C.M. McClung's chief products were superior horseshoe nails. They spanned the city and country. The company was credited with introducing the first practical barbed wire to East Tennessee, and also for promoting the newest office technology of the era: typewriters.

Behind it all was one unlikely bloke. Cal McClung is one of those historical figures who can convince you that in spite of our technological advances, we live smaller lives than men of a century ago. He was a hardware man, yes, but a hardware man who studied the sciences at Yale. He was an amateur botanist and geologist; he was a banker; he was a bibliophile and an expert in typesetting; and he turned out to be the most influential Knoxville historian of his era.

He lived large, though he wasn't large. Almost as if he were boasting, he would claim that he was half his wife's size. In portraits, like the one by artist Lloyd Branson on a prominent wall at the McClung Collection, he wears his hair parted in the middle, spectacles, a neatly trimmed mustache, a high starched collar. In an old Western, he would have been cast in the role of the unwitting city slicker fresh off the train.

In fact he was actually an outdoorsman, and long before the Smokies were a national park with marked trails, he sang as he hiked them. His favorite piece of personal hardware may have been the tin cylinder he always carried for whatever botanical specimens caught his eye. He was given to spells of frenetic activity, followed by periods of unremitting gloom. A later generation might have diagnosed him as bipolar; to his contemporaries, Cal McClung was mainly interesting.

He also collected rocks and books. His impressive personal library became the germ of what's known today at the McClung Collection. It is kept, fortunately, in a thoroughly code-compliant building at Gay and Clinch, several blocks away from West Jackson.

One news report last week, perhaps reflecting the way some older Knoxvillians were fond of exaggerating the suddenness of the city's progress, stated that when McClung built his warehouses here, West Jackson was "in the country." It wasn't, really. The 1891 city directory shows it was already a street of machine shops, and about a dozen residences, with industrial and urban-density residential development in all directions. It probably did seem country. It was always off the beaten path, hemmed between the freight yards and the bottom of a steep slope that tends toward overgrowth. Most of downtown's other avenues offer several cross streets between Gay and Henley; West Jackson has none. It's just one long block that's easy to avoid, and most folks do. You can walk the length of it in the daytime and never have to get out of the way of a car. With its crumbling two-lane pavement and lush kudzu climbing the hillside, it can still seem country.

But this odd little pocket of pseudo-rural isolation has always been one of the most conspicuous to those passing through town, to railroad passengers of another era, and to interstate travelers. When passing through on I-40, even people who worked downtown every day, and thought they knew the place, would look over at the big brick buildings with busted windows and say, "Where the hell is that?"

Last year, on conservative radio, the McClung Warehouses and their owner, facing increasing pressure from the city, became a cause celebre: a poster child for the right of property owners to do, or not do, whatever they pleased with their property. In this case, the owner's choice resulted in keeping, for 15 years, several large downtown buildings mostly vacant. He recently turned down seven-digit offers to sell the buildings to experienced developers; he declined tax-credit inducements from the city--which also repeatedly warned him of the hazards of keeping large buildings vacant.

Many cities might have acquired the buildings by eminent domain before last week, but Knoxville never violated the owner's property rights.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. The owner is a likeable guy, and I prefer to think the best of him and his intentions. But there seems little doubt that the independent-minded owner's choices contributed much to what happened last week. Whether fire-code laws were violated or not, it's obvious that the buildings were nowhere near the fire-safety standards of neighboring buildings of the same era that have recently been renovated.

There may still be some who admire the property owner's bold stand against two city administrations and various commissions, task forces, and preservationist groups for so many years. But no man is an island. Property owners' personal choices do often affect the interests of the taxpaying public, sometimes in catastrophic ways.

The fire was doubtless a financial setback to the property owner, depending on his relationship with his insurance company. But it also resulted in a bill of more than $1 million in public-funded firefighting expenses and equipment, including a demolished fire truck. It left one firefighter hospitalized. The drainage of ash was reportedly an ecological catastrophe to Second Creek. The damage to neighboring buildings and cars is easily in the millions. The flying embers from this poster child for independent property rights started other fires as much as three blocks away.

And in an era when historic downtown buildings are more in demand than ever before, we lost the biggest one still undeveloped. The fact that it had enormous potential was the one thing the property owner and his many critics could always agree about.