You can't help but notice that the Bearden area has gotten a little flatter in recent months. Near Kroger and Starbucks, an old motel building vanished. Its name, Biltmore Court, has an odd connection to some painted words barely visible on an alley downtown. More about that in a minute.
The bigger and more anticipated flattening was around the corner from there, the University of Tennessee's old graduate and married-student housing on Sutherland. It happened a few months ago, but their absence continues to startle passers by, even Kingston Pike drivers peering down through the bare trees. For the first time in half a century, there are no buildings down there. A photographer friend remarked that without the UT apartment buildings, the land looks more than ever like its purpose in the 1920s: Knoxville's original McGhee Tyson Airport.
The UT apartments probably won't be missed as architecture. I've never heard anyone argue they had value in that regard, though they may have reminded some Kruschev-era nostalgists of old East Berlin. It was kind of a bleak place to put graduate students from foreign countries, as their introduction to sunny Tennessee.
But in interesting ways the mostly short-term residents changed the neighborhood to suit them, and illustrated a phenomenon that has been described by urban designers in many other cities. Place a population of a distinctive minority—say, 300 people of Asian or Arabic origin—in one tight neighborhood, and they will attract distinctive retail. Over the years, that stretch of Sutherland has supported Indian, Pakistani, Arabic, and Asian groceries—as well as a couple of fresh-produce farmers' markets that have catered to the same population. Call it ironic, but foreigners reportedly buy more local farmers' produce than locals do. Some of these shoppers are unaccustomed to American supermarkets. Many also lack cars to drive to them.
Take the same population and distribute them around the city, and you won't get the same impact. Student families will still come from far away, and may buy a favorite spice or fresh vegetable at this Kroger or that, but without concentrating enough to support businesses that cater to them, they'll become less visible.
Over the last 40 years, Sutherland's little international retail neighborhood became an asset to the whole city, bringing lots of options we never had before. In the wake of the demolition, some businesses are hurting. Some, like the recently expanded Holy Land, seem to be thriving. None would have been here without the residential buildings UT just tore down.
The old motel at 4938 Kingston Pike was no architectural wonder, either, but as motels go, it was an ancient one, said to be among the city's first. It hadn't been well kept in recent years, but it was one of the few remainders of the era when the Bearden strip of the Pike thrived on tourists crossing the country on the Dixie and Lee Highways. Knoxville was a major junction for Studebakers and LaSalles loaded with Northern families on vacations to Florida or the Gulf Coast.
The rumor that the Biltmore was once the home of Cormac McCarthy is widespread and, according to good authorities, untrue. The idiosyncratic novelist did live in a motel in Bearden in the early '80s, but that motel was a couple of blocks west of this one, and was torn down years ago.
This motel was called the Biltmore, not necessarily because of its resemblance to another residential building outside of Asheville, but partly at least thanks to a family tradition. Opened in the early 1950s, it was run by the Greek Anagnost family.
Originally from Tripolis, Greece, George Anagnost arrived in Knoxville in the 1920s, and opened a restaurant at 319 Union, near Market Square, in the building where Rala and Coffee and Chocolate are now. He and his family were also involved in the hat-cleaning trade downtown, once a lucrative business. I'm not sure what hat cleaning and running a restaurant had in common, but they weren't the only Knoxville Greek family who had a hand in both trades at once. The Sam & Andy's Kapetenopoulos family were delimen-hat cleaners, as well.
By 1930, Anagnost was calling his place the Eat More Lunch Room. They apparently specialized in tamales and chili, the dish known to Knoxville lifers as the Full House.
In 1933, the restaurant business changed in a big way, when the 21st amendment made beer legal again. Gus Anagnost—George's brother, I think—opened a new place in the same building, but rather than keeping the name Eat More, he classed it up a little and called it Biltmore. The Biltmore Cafe. There's a classic photo of it you've probably seen somewhere: the Anagnosts posing on the Union Avenue sidewalk with a whole squadron of happy waitresses, and a policeman. The sign above them advertised, in large letters, CHILI and TAMALES.
The Biltmore Cafe was a downtown institution for almost 20 years. But by the early '50s, downtown was changing, and many things were heading west. The Anagnosts closed the Biltmore Cafe, and the same year opened the Biltmore Court on Kingston Pike, a spot then just beyond city limits. The Anagnosts had bought a tourist court at the site for a few years before that called Camp Delight, a travelers' amenity that had been there since about 1929. It was actually a conservative name on a block where the neighbors were the Oki-Doke Cafe and Kozy Kamp. I'm not sure how much if any of the Biltmore Court building just torn down dates back to Camp Delight days. Some "camps" had motel-like structures; others were literally just campsites. It lasted until the 1960s, when new I-40 starved the Pike of its tourist trade. Biltmore Court evolved into a low-profile apartment building.
But they'd left a little bit of themselves downtown. Have a look at the corner of Union and Strong Alley. Painted in black and white on the old brick, persisting after more than 60 years, is what's left of a sign: "BILTMORE CAFE."