Too Big to Save? So Long to a Whole Constellation of Historic Buildings

The year 2014 is handy proof that preservationists don't try to save everything.

UT's sweeping decision to destroy several of its tallest buildings, for example, doesn't seem to have been met with many tears. Presidential Court, the dormitory complex on Andy Holt, probably seemed exciting on paper. Maybe when it was first done, it was proof that UT was jet-set modern. In the '60s it could have been Knoxville's most credible shooting location for a James Bond movie. But it was a stark thing. Its eponymous courtyard has been used for some memorable events—I remember some radio station's Battle of the Bands there, 30-odd years ago. But has anyone ever reached the point of loving the place?

For tiresome literalists like me, the fact that a tower called Morrill Hall was almost universally mispronounced—with an accent on the E (!)—might even seem a reason to cheer its passing. That daily and rather venerable mispronunciation of the name of an important Vermont statesman, Sen. Justin Smith Morrill, made me think UT should offer a freshman course called Readin'.

One of the buildings in the group is much older than the others, and it will be the first to go. Shelbourne Towers was built in the early 1950s. It was first just a general-purpose apartment building, with no direct connection to UT. When it was built, UT was over yonder—coming this way, but still several blocks to the east. Most of Shelbourne's original neighborhood was still an actual neighborhood, of single-family homes.

Shelbourne would be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and it has distinctions. I didn't know how old it was until I was researching a history of Robert Webb's founding of Webb School, and learned that one of the school's early legends, Genevieve Hudson, the first headmaster of Webb's old Girl's School, lived in Shelbourne Towers when she moved to Knoxville from California in 1957. Even George Dempster, former Knoxville mayor and inventor of the Dumpster, lived there for a short while.

One of Knoxville's first televised talk shows, a definitively '50s show called Anne Carroll's House, was reportedly shot in an apartment in Shelbourne Towers. Carroll hosted a "Beauty Board" there to debate cosmetic issues.

Much later, Shelbourne's basement bar, the Maltese Falcon, was a refuge for kids in the devoutly bar-less campus. Writers Paul Finebaum and Gene Wojciechowski, both of whom became nationally known sports commentators, held memorable bull sessions there in the 1970s.

UT crept up and around Shelbourne, built buildings like it, and then bought it. Now folks assume they're all of a piece.

I'm making no pitch to save Shelbourne Towers. I don't think anybody is, and that's my point. For those who think preservationists "just want to save everything," it's an exception. Even if we narrowed our sites to all buildings that are technically eligible for historic tax credits, that are both old enough and that have intimate associations with famous or significant people and events, there are actually lots of exceptions.

Consider, just around the corner from all that, Stokely Athletic Center, which is being demolished as I write. Once called the Field House, it was one of the prides of Gen. Robert Neyland's tenure as athletic director. It has athletic distinctions, of course, not just as the home office of the great Ray Mears, who was proud he coined the term Big Orange Country—it's also the birthplace of the Lady Vols. Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley and I've heard even the Police, in their early years, performed there. What bar wouldn't brag, daily, about those associations? It's old enough to qualify for historic tax credits.

But it's being torn down, and preservationists aren't complaining.

It was designed by Barber McMurry when Charlie Barber himself was still in charge, as was the University Center. It was where I saw Norman Mailer speak, where legendary folksinger Phil Ochs performed, as did Tom Waits early in his career. It witnessed the dramatic student strike of 1970. The U.C. is where the great Massachusetts poet Robert Lowell gave the very last public reading of his entire career, in May of 1977. In his biography, one of the last pictures of Lowell shows him on his Knoxville trip. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech inside the ballroom in 1985, the same room where Yippie Jerry Rubin spoke a few years before.

Its most famous secret was the long-suppressed mural by the artist Marion Greenwood, whose star has risen in the decades since she spent a year working on a big mural at the U.C. in 1954-55. Already removed from that building, the Greenwood mural will be on display at UT's Downtown Gallery for two months beginning June 6.

Hardly any building built in Knoxville after World War II has more history than the Carolyn P. Brown University Center. But it's going to be torn down soon. I have indeed heard some regrets about that one, and Knox Heritage did list it on its Fragile 15. But there's been no public initiative, no newspaper column, no organized effort to save it.

UT's tearing down a lot, but so is the city itself. Baptist Hospital promises to be one of the biggest demolitions in Knoxville history. Its central building, now 66 years old, was designed by a well-known Baltimore architect James R. Edmunds (1890-1953). And somewhere within the old hospital is the room where a blues legend, singer-songwriter Ida Cox, died in 1967. It's seen a great deal of drama and history in its long life.

Here's the main take-home lesson, for all you folks who like to flatten interesting old buildings but prefer to avoid the annoyance of public outcry: Pick ones that are really, really big. They're the ones that are most likely to stump preservationists who can't come up with an obvious and affordable modern use for them. Preservationists are, at heart, practical people, and want what's good for the city.