A Tour of the New Oliver Hotel

Downtown's "boutique hotel" reopens for business

After four months of pretty intensive labor, a team led by young developers Ethan Orley, of New York, and sometime Knoxvillian Phillip Welker, are ready to show their work. The refurbished (and slightly renamed) Oliver Hotel opened, softly, a couple of weeks ago—just in time for the Biscuit Festival, which packed it. Still unfinished are the street-level parts that may become most familiar to those of us who never seem to need a room in Knoxville.

The owners seem especially interested in the heritage of their hotel's brick hide, the overlooked landmark at 1 Market Square. Orley based the design of the new lightbulb-bedecked Oliver Hotel sign on an old Kern sign.

Many longtime Knoxvillians might be hard-pressed to identify the Kern Building in a lineup, but there was a time when it was the most popular building in town. It was the height of the Gilded Age when German immigrant Peter Kern built the place in 1876, as a bakery and a sort of retail Oz: a confectionery, a soda fountain, a toy and fireworks store, and a chandeliered late-night "ice-cream saloon"; an Oddfellows Hall on the third floor hosted concerts and dances. For decades it was the most fun spot in town.

It faded into a dignified anonymity over the years, hosting drug stores, pool halls, restaurants, a speakeasy, a dance studio; briefly, a "Metaphysical Library." It first became a hotel about 30 years ago, and later downtown maverick Kristopher Kendrick reimagined the place as a European-style hostelry, furnished with his favorite antiques and artworks of obscure provenance, and just off the lobby, his own dark-paneled library. No two rooms, he was proud to say, had much in common, some more French, some more Oriental. The place was interesting and creaky and dark and cluttered and attractive to celebrities. Actress Patricia Neal was more than a regular, and author Elizabeth Gilbert lived there for several months, as she finished a notable memoir about world travel; she was convinced its library was haunted.

The St. Oliver was luxurious in its own way, but most of its luxuries stopped this side of the bathroom door. "The bathrooms were so bad," Welker says of the tiny and sometimes dysfunctional facilities, "we thought, we've gotta start over."

While professing admiration for Kendrick and his unique style—Welker calls it "French Merchant," inspired by an apparent portrait of one—the owners admit that in several respects they have overturned it. Now simply the Oliver, desanctified for simplicity, the hotel is bright and open, kind of classical-moderne in style. Though the basic layout is about the same, with 28 rooms, it seems like a different place. Corners and sharp angles minimized, walls lightened, it all feels generally less ominous. The old elevator, which some guests concluded was bewitched, is fixed, but the sunny open stairwell seems a nicer way to get between floors.

Cortney Bishop did the interior design. "They wanted more light," she says of the new owners, "But we wanted to keep that little bit of Hollywood glamour that Kristopher always had." She knew Kendrick, and takes some pride in what they've done with the high corner room that was his last residence. The ceilings, once of a conventional hotel height, now rise to 15 feet. She says she wants to preserve the place's famous eccentricity, what she called "the Appalachian-quirky edge," with some design touches. That motif embraces both whimsical furniture and, in every room, framed art prints from Knoxville's own irrepressible Yee-Haw Industries.

The hotel's 28 rooms may be a bit more similar to each other than they used to be, but they present 14 different basic layouts. The decor's more consistent, Bishop admits, "to make it easier on the housekeeping staff." But the furniture is all custom-made, and the louvered windows contain the biggest louvers this reporter has ever witnessed in person.

They seem to have fixed the bathrooms, which are all much bigger, in some cases borrowing a spare nook from a room next door. What Welker calls "Paris-style subway tiles" cover the floors, with the Oliver's OH monogram. "We wanted Knoxville marble" countertops, says Welker, but he settled for Italian Carrera, as Michelangelo did.

Most Knoxvillians may never see that stuff, but the developers hope the Oliver will become part of downtown life. On the corner where the Market Square Kitchen used to be will be a new restaurant, which Welker and Orley promise will be the only one of its kind here. They'll say only that they're talking to a chef who will call the shots, and that it will be a farm-to-table sort of place, "upscale casual, but fast-paced," unpretentiously upscale, like some of their favorite places: Orley mentions Smith & Mills, a Hipster-American restaurant in New York.

Several craftsmen have been dwelling here for the last few months, working on the place; among them, Kris Kotlowski, the burly, tattooed woodworker well known in Charleston, who is designing Peter Kern's Bar. It's going in the oblong room where the haunted library used to be. The plan is to give it an outdoor entrance, onto the alley, lending a whiff of the speakeasy. It won't be a high-volume place, with beer specials, Welker says, but a specialty bar known for its signature drinks. They're interviewing mixologists. Orley emphasizes that he wants the Oliver to be a place where people will come in the morning to read the paper over a cup of coffee, and return in the evening for after-dinner drinks.

"The term ‘boutique hotel' is overused," says Orley, as if he's about to make fun of the concept. But then he adds, with some command of the term, "we really are Boutique."

Eccentric charm may redevelop later. "Sometimes you don't know," admits Welker. "But we want to start out with as good a canvas as we can."

Like most folks who already have a bed in Knoxville, I'll probably never stay there. And I'll miss the tales of the interestingly weird old St. Oliver. But the new hotel seems just the sort of place well-traveled visitors tell me they wish Knoxville had.