Wallace Baumann, 1925-2009

A memory of a surprising philanthropist

Wallace Baumann died last week. I'd seen him a few times this summer, and he seemed more or less the same as he did when I was first aware of who he was, sometime in the '60s. Cheerful, well-dressed, and with a cogent remark about the last issue of Metro Pulse.

He didn't look 84, or even 74, as several people have observed this week; some who hadn't known him for long had assumed he was 20 or even 30 years younger. Wallace may have been evidence of a paradoxical truth, that while young men look older when they wear a jacket and tie, old men look younger. I never in my life saw Wallace without a jacket and tie, and with prominent horn-rimmed glasses, he looked like an executive in one of those business-office comedies of the '60s. For the last couple of years, there's been a big portrait of him in the Tennessee Theatre in the landing of the right stairway up to the balcony. He was in recent decades the theater's biggest supporter. He directed much of the recent painstaking restoration of the theater; he was three when it was built, and remembered it in its earliest days. But many weren't aware of the extent of his personal investment in the place.

Baumann was a merchant, by trade. He was, for some decades, the president of Woodruff's Furniture, the Gay Street institution his great-grandfather, William Wallace Woodruff, founded at the end of the Civil War. About 20 years ago, when downtown retail was widely reputed to be deceased, Woodruff's was an extravagant exception, this multi-story emporium with inventory that seemed fresh and up-to-date. The last time I was there—it was the early '90s, we'd just had a second kid and needed a kid-proof dining table—I found a plausibly trendy one at Woodruff's. It was the last time I saw a representative of a bygone profession in my home town: Wallace may have been our last merchant to employ elevator operators.

The place is now the Downtown Grill and Brewery. The last time I talked to Wallace about it, he hadn't been inside to see his great-grandfather's building renovated as a popular restaurant and brewpub. He seemed all right with the fact of it, but didn't feel an urgency to look. The family name is still on the building; Woodruff was Wallace's middle name.

Wallace and I had some sharp disagreements about some downtown issues, but stayed friendly, and he was my handiest resource for certain questions about the past of our shared hometown. A lifelong bachelor, he lived alone in Sequoyah Hills and was usually there to answer his phone. For a guy in my position, it's been handy to have the phone number of a person who remembered going to see John Barrymore get off the train for his show at the Bijou, 70 years ago, and who recalled both of Glenn Miller's shows at the Tennessee as if they were last Tuesday. ("Wallace never said, ‘Ah, it was a long time ago, I just don't remember.'") A few months ago, when I heard an implausible story about Ingrid Bergman planting a dogwood tree on Market Square 40 years ago, I was pretty confident Wallace would know something about it, and sure enough he was right there beside her, and had a funny story about it.

He was also an authority on architecture, though I don't think he would have claimed to be perfectly objective on the subject. The Baumann family, German immigrants who arrived in East Tennessee in the mid-19th century, was arguably Knoxville's first architectural dynasty, dominating local commercial and institutional architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wallace was a Baumann who didn't design buildings, but he was a champion of the Baumanns' architecture. Wallace's father, who died almost half a century ago, was the last of them. (Wallace once corrected me, rather sternly, when in a column I referred to his father as Albert B. Baumann Jr. That was his given name, maybe, but Wallace told me no one ever called him anything but "A.B.")

Baumann was a great supporter of several civic organizations, especially the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and he could be counted on to attend each performance with a lady friend. Even if you'd known him for decades, as I did, you might not gather, in conversations with this elegant gentleman in the lobby of the Tennessee, that he was a combat veteran of World War II, a member of Combat Command B of the 10th Armored Division, one of the first to breach the Siegfried Line. He spent much of 1944 in a foxhole near Bastogne with an M1 for company. He hardly spoke of the war. I never even knew he'd been in the service until he was invited to write an article about his wartime memories, in an especially interesting collection of memoirs of members of First Presbyterian Church, called We Were There. It's characteristic that in his description of the Siegfried Line, he mentioned that he'd previously known it only from newsreels at the Tennessee Theatre.

(That book, by the way, is as good a collection of local memories of that war as I've seen. Bill Tate, another contributor to that book, a B-17 navigator who was shot down over Germany, and a survivor of a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, also died last week.)

Back in 2001, Baumann personally financed the complete restoration of the theater's original Wurlitzer organ; they sent the organ away to one of the world's top organ technicians. Today it's said to be one of fewer than 20 concert-grade organs in America which are installed in their original locations. Wallace was proud of that fact.

The bill came to $180,000. Wallace was a private man, and during his life didn't want that detail to be known. I hope it's okay to mention it now.