Some Surprisingly Positive Portents for a New Year

Go to First Night. I haven't yet proven that Adolph Ochs, the father of the world's most famous New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square, based his party on his memories of a typical Saturday night on Market Square in the 1870s, when he worked there as an apprentice printer. But I mean to get around to it.

Krutch Park used to be kind of a rapturous place. At Christmas season, the white lights would trace up each branch. My kids would beg to go into Krutch Park at night during the holidays just to stand there. It was a reason to come downtown, even when there was nothing much going on on Market Square. It was like being on the inside of a constellation.

Now they still decorate the trees with lights, as some folks do in my neighborhood, and it still keeps out the gloom, which I guess is the original point of all this solstice business. But nothing like it was a few years ago. A few trees have individual branches lit. Most just have the trunks. It's okay, I guess, but it doesn't have the same effect. You tend to avoid the word Wow.

I'm not sure when or why it changed, whether it was a new city policy to protect the trees or just something the workers chose not to fool with. I'm just imagining the conversation among the city workers, back in November.

"Heck, I ain't doing them branches. You boys can do all that prissy stuff if you want, but I ain't lighting nothing but these here trunks."

On one of my long lunchtime walks, I was disappointed to see the tail end of the demolition of an odd old barn-like house of wood and stucco on the southeast corner of Clinch and 17th. It's on the same block as the gaunt old Pickle Mansion, almost destroyed by fire a few years ago, now still a shell but enjoying a very slow renovation. The heart of Fort Sanders can't afford to lose much more of its distinctiveness and still offer the impression that it's still one of Tennessee's most interesting neighborhoods. Parts of it, now dominated by cheap apartment buildings, are beginning to look like the lesser suburbs of Volgograd. But I'm not convinced anybody famous ever lived in that doomed house. The preservationist authorities were convinced the house was beyond practical salvation, and the construction slated to replace it is promised to be a new house consistent with its fellows.

Some of the best news I've heard lately is that it sounds like the lovely little pocket neighborhood known as Maplehurst is finally in appreciative hands. The cluster of 1910s and '20s houses and apartment buildings between UT and Henley Street—probably the only place in town where you could credibly film one of S.S. Van Dine's mysteries, or something set in San Francisco or the Italian Riviera, assuming you used the camera carefully—has suffered a roller coaster of near-misses over the last 20 years, and several irretrievable losses. But the intricate character of the place survived the Game Day era. Even if it was better than the likely alternative, that is, wholesale demolition, Game Day just seemed like a bad idea. Maplehurst is handy to Neyland Stadium, sure, but you have to raise questions about architecture based around a phenomenon that happens only six or eight times a year. Dominion, the development company that won the bidding, is inspired by preservationism and is associated with the successful and pretty fascinating Cherokee Building renovation on Sutherland, as well as the tall Carlton apartment building in Bearden.

As 2009 ends, the two northern corners of Market Square are undergoing major surgery; one's procedure is the mirror opposite of the other's. At 36 Market Square, the four-story building that's the tallest building on the Square, they're taking off the tired brick skin of the building. In this space a few years ago I fussed about the liberal use of the term facadectomy. It would logically seem to apply to a building from which the facade was removed, not the other way around. Decades of water damage, and dangerous bowing of the brickwork, necessitated this facade removal, the first thing I've seen in Knoxville that can properly be called a facadectomy. The interior of the 1890s building, originally S.H. George's, but better known for its longer association with another department store, Woods & Taylor, will be restored and preserved, probably with residences and retail.

Right across the way, at 37, Glenn Laiken, the L.A. clothing designer who is my nominee for Most Surprising Newcomer of 2009, is doing roughly the opposite with an older, smaller building, the two-story 37 Market Square, keeping the front facade but demolishing most of the rest of the building.

No building in Knoxville has more of a restaurant heritage than 37 Market Square; it's been a restaurant for most of the last 100 years, most famously as the Gold Sun, the Greek-owned place considered so elemental to life and work here that in the middle of the 20th century, it was reportedly the informal headquarters of the Grand Jury. Early exploratory surgery revealed a forgotten old northern window with the Gold Sun logo, followed by a phrase which had the effect of a siren song: "Fried Chicken."

They're keeping just enough of it that no matter how posh it gets, we can still point to it and say, "Yes, son, that was the Gold Sun, visited by Guy Lombardo, Jack Dempsey, and Dan Quayle."

Both buildings are going to house restaurants. It may be swell to have good restaurants anchoring these corners of the Square, making good use of the corner space with outdoor seating and all.

But in 2010, folks, let's see if we can think of something besides restaurants for downtown Knoxville. As a city and as a species, I think, we need to think of other ways to spend our days besides eating.