Two Corners: Some Resonance Behind the Depot Street Fire and the Marble Alley Project

I'd never looked twice at the building on Depot Street at Ogden. It was just a big, blank, one-story building, looking from the front like any utilitarian warehouse from the 1970s. I remember the '70s, but can't account for what we were thinking then, especially concerning architecture.

I'd never heard anyone refer to it as a historically important building, and maybe it wasn't. But it does go to show that when you look at any building and think it's a cheap box, you never really know what you're dealing with.

The fire two weeks ago burned away the parts we could see on the outside, the bland wooden ‘70s awning and cover facade, and revealed, briefly, a pretty, old building I'd never seen before in my life. The gabled brick facade looked like the 1920s. It had some decorative brickwork of a sort you don't ever see after the era when every respectable dance band had a cornet.

That appealing ruin was not there for long. Wrecked by the fire, that interesting stack of bricks was leaning, dangerous just to walk beside.

Curious about what the old building ever was, naturally, I went to the McClung Collection and looked it up.

Until about 1920, that block was mostly residential. That's surprising, because a lot of Depot was devoted to greeting the hundreds of passengers who emerged from the depot every day, some of them for the first time, seeing what this Knoxville was all about. Back then, Depot presented a pretty busy first impression. Squarely in front of the train station entrance and toward Gay Street were hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, barber shops, soft-drink stands.

What appeared here in 1921, on a formerly residential block, was the Chevrolet Motor Co. This is my theory, based on the style of that briefly visible building combined with what we can see from the city directories, and an old photo that architect Mark Heinz found: the building that burned down a couple of weeks ago may have been Knoxville's first Chevrolet showroom. They also sold Cadillacs. Other local businesses handled Chevrolets before that, but this one specialized in them. It would have sold two-door roadsters and four-door touring cars—cheap, practical, but much more graceful and stylish than Ford's Model T.

It didn't stay for long before Chevrolet moved a couple blocks over toward Broadway. This building seems to have been a Mack Truck dealership after that.

For half a century, the blocks north of the Southern station hosted Knoxville's highest concentration of automobile dealerships. It was the prewar equivalent of the Airport Motor Mile. Was the idea that people would get off the train and, rather than use a return ticket, buy a car?

At the time of architect-developer Buzz Goss' roll-out of a large new apartment building project on State Street, a TV reporter called and asked me about the history of Marble Alley, and I stuttered. Was it a black community? she asked. Well, sort of, at one time.

But it was a pretty complicated area. Looking at the expanse of blank parking lots there today, that's hard to believe.

Marble Alley proper, which ran between State and Central, from Commerce to Union, was for decades a mostly residential street. In the early 1900s, it supported at least 25 households, almost all of them black. As former Mayor Dan Brown noted at the press conference, in his youth it was home to the Logan AME Church, sometimes known as the Marble Alley Church.

State Street itself was a residential street, mostly mixed-race. It was the home of former slave Cal Johnson, who lived next door to his clothing factory, which still stands with his name on it—an extraordinarily rare example of a slave overcoming his circumstances in a racially segregated society to become a prominent businessman. More than one speaker at the gathering on March 8 remarked on the decrepit Cal Johnson building, in hopes that an upscale development right here would encourage the building's owner to do something worthwhile with it.

But there were big white institutions here, too. At State and Commerce, the corner parking lot where the two mayors and several other politicians and developers gathered for that big announcement that Friday morning was the precise site of the old and, as far as I know, all-white, Hampden-Sydney Academy. Enabled by an act of Congress and founded in 1808, it may have had no direct connection to the famous college of the same name in Virginia, which wasn't that much older.

The prep-school academy got kicked around town for a few decades before 1876, when it got a permanent home, an especially handsome brick and stone building right here: three stories with a very elaborate bell tower above it. Here, during the first era of free public education, the ancient academy evolved into a public high school for boys.

Its teachers were esteemed with the title of "professor," but by the end of the 19th century, an assignment to Hampden-Sydney wasn't always welcome. It had a reputation as the "problem child" of the city school system. It was mainly for older boys—teenagers—and by most accounts the boys ran the joint. If a professor made the mistake of wearing a hat to school, he wouldn't be wearing it long. Hampden-Sydney turned out prominent citizens nonetheless, among them Harry Ijams, founder of Ijams Nature Center.

After Hampden-Sydney closed in the 1920s, its building was used for other schools, but it was torn down in 1938, for a parking lot.

The school's bell was kind of famous. A 1941 news item reported it being donated to the Oakwood Baptist Church, who had plans to build a belfry just to house it. I checked with a church staffer who's been familiar with the church for 40 years. She'd never heard of it. Maybe you have.

For now, the big square stones along Commerce are the only known physical remnant of an almost-forgotten academy.

Corrected: Spelling of "Hampden-Sydney."