The Sign in the Elevator Shaft

The mysteries of 36 Market Square

When the weather's nice, look up in the northeastern corner of Market Square and you may see someone sitting in a lawn chair, looking down. Ken Mills enjoys his time up there, keeping an eye on things. After the big auction in late 2007, he found himself owner of the tallest building on Market Square.

The four-story brick building at no. 36, known to some historians as the Woods & Taylor Building, had been vacant for years. The city began worrying about it in the '90s, when its walls began bowing out in the front. It looked like a matter of time before it might slough off its façade, shed its skin like a snake. Developers Scott and Bernadette West bought the building a few years ago, sealed it up, and shored up the front walls with steel rods. They had big plans for the building, which offered more square footage than any other building on the Square, and they were so proud of it they installed etched images, caricatures of themselves, Bernadette's mom Rosemarie, and previous owner Fikret Gencay in the front. The Wests were in the early stages of a vigorous renovation in 2006 when federal agents arrested them for their part in a major nationwide marijuana trafficking conspiracy. Their Market Square properties, including this building, passed into the hands of the Internal Revenue Service, which sat on it for more than a year before auctioning it off.

Mills has never met the Wests, but says they might have saved the place. He paid just over half a million for it. "Some people say I paid too much," says Mills, an unpretentious guy in his 50s who used to run an industrial laundry. "Some say I got a deal." He has some experience fixing up old places—he and his wife were involved in an appealing renovation of a Gay Street building which houses the Art Market. He's looking to make four retail spaces on the ground floor, maybe residential above.

In the spaces behind the plywood now covered with colorful graffiti and interesting art, businesses once thrived in the building. About its origin, sources conflict, but Sanborn maps suggest a long four-story building was here before 1903. It was a big dry-goods store, and in 1907 the original site of the popular department store S.H. George's. While the hardwood upper floors, weathered and rotted through in some places, have been vacant for decades, the street level has hosted a pageant of interesting small businesses.

Today, hardly any businesses carry a Wall Avenue address. Barely two blocks long, Wall is dominated by TVA. Just before the federal agency's demolitions, it was a short but busy street. In 1970, 33 separate businesses were on these two blocks, not counting those facing the Square.

This one big building has housed dozens of businesses over the years. Papa John's, a Hopper-esque diner older than the pizza chain, was once a lunchtime refuge, a dependable place for a dismal rainy-day lunch of sausage and beans. Most people came in singly and sat around the U-shaped counter, a legacy I think of its days as a Blue Circle, and talked, or didn't. I rarely saw anybody in there I knew, and some days that was fine.

In the same building, past a jeweler and a beauty parlor, was a corner place called the Yummy Shop which always made me think of something on a Myrtle Beach boardwalk. They sold pistachio nuts and popcorn and ice cream and sunglasses and flip-flops and toys. I went there on sunny days.

Over the decades, the building also housed cigar stores, cobblers, opticians, an intriguing sounding place called Casa de Ramona, and, in the 1950s, a walk-up record store called Grandpappy's.

A business that fascinated me as a kid of 13 or 14 was a rare-coins shop. I'd ride the bus downtown just to visit. An ancient man with a Dickensian scowl ran the place. He didn't like me, and I didn't like him, but his place fascinated me. I'd go in there to gawk at  the Morgan silver dollars and antebellum half-dimes and double-eagle gold pieces, then buy an Indian penny for a quarter.

Before that, the building was home to Bowers' clothing store, a place older folks remember fondly—and before that, Woods & Taylor, "Dependable Outfitters," did business here after George's departed for Gay Street. Woods & Taylor thrived for a quarter century before vanishing during the Depression.

It's one of the few buildings on the Square with an elevator; it doesn't work anymore, but you can peer into the shaft. Visible in that gloom is a large sign painted on concrete applied to the brick wall, low on the fourth floor. The sign's in large, carefully stenciled bright-red letters. It's older than the elevator, and older than the paneling that partly obscures it.




It appears to be painted over a previous sign, not quite faded. Renovators find these vestigial old signs now and then; often they're painted on the exterior of a building next door, and were visible to the outside before the building you're standing in was built.  Ken and I first assumed that was the case with this one.

But it doesn't work as a theory. The building next door, which looks older, is only two stories tall. The sign is obviously intended for people already inside the Woods & Taylor building. But why is it so big, with foot-tall letters big enough to be read 40 yards away?

Here's my best guess. Several decades ago, before this decrepit old elevator was new, before these creaky old floor boards were nailed down, maybe the fourth floor had two parallel decks, fore and aft, like a Spanish galleon, with a broad old-fashioned staircase in between, and an opening that might have afforded a view of a lofty sign. Maybe it once said something "Clearance Sale." January, maybe.

I doubt anyone knows, or remembers the floor layout that made the sign visible. Tell me if I'm wrong.