Coping With Loss: With the Demolition of the McClung Warehouses, We Need to Start Looking Ahead

There's not much left to say about the McClung Warehouses that hasn't already been said. I certainly can't add to Jack Neely's excellent placeography and requiem that appeared in these pages last month. As I write this, the demolition of the structures is wrapping up, and all that remains of the buildings that used to dominate the western stretch of Jackson Avenue are broken bricks and memories. The potential, and the dreams, that once existed are gone. But the loss has left us with a few things of value.

First, there is the lesson learned. While the McClung buildings may have been among downtown's most visible neglected structures, they certainly weren't the only ones. With the loss, Knox Heritage's list of the city's most endangered historical buildings, the Fragile Fifteen, has again demonstrated its bleak foresight. For the time being, another longtime fixture of that list remains: tucked along State Street, and much more closely woven into the fabric of downtown, the Cal Johnson Building. The three-story industrial building was built by a former slave, the only architectural remnant of Knoxville's most successful black businessman (Calvin Johnson, 1844-1925), whose name is high on the facade.

It may not have seen the litany of debate and hand-wringing over property rights that the McClung structures did. I haven't seen much about it in the newspapers at all lately. But to a downtown resident who still retains memories of fire raining out of the sky from the first time the McClung buildings went up in flames, it looks like a familiar setting with its boarded up windows and graffiti-tagged walls. It sits neglected, rotting, and seemingly ripe for the same sort of disaster that befell the buildings on Jackson.

If anything can be learned from that loss, it should be that we simply cannot allow the sort of threat that the Cal Johnson Building represents to continue to go unaddressed. The city needs to move forward with whatever measures are necessary to protect not only the building itself, but also the millions of dollars in renewed investment in downtown that surrounds it. The windows were boarded up a few years back, and the owner would probably say it's been secured. But the same could be said of the McClung buildings, if they were still standing.

Meanwhile, back on Jackson Avenue, the loss of the warehouses may mark the most noteworthy change to that thoroughfare recently, but it's far from the only one. Plans and discussions about the impending replacement of the Jackson Avenue ramps that connect Jackson to Gay Street have been ongoing since the renovations to the 100 Block were being hammered out. But along with the McClung fire, a number of other changes along Jackson have taken place that make revisiting plans for the entire corridor worthwhile.

Since the evaluation of the original proposals, commercial activity has occurred that didn't exist at the time. In addition to the successful renovation of buildings along the north side of Jackson along the same block as the warehouses, other changes have taken place as well. Down the ramp on the Old City side, the recent sale of the buildings occupied by John H. Daniel for decades, and the subsequent announcement of plans to develop them into residential units with retail fronting Jackson has redefined possibilities for the area in ways that didn't exist when the plan was originally being discussed. A little closer to Gay, the former warehouse and home of Heuristic Workshops at the base of the eastern Jackson ramp has been approved for financial assistance from the city, and ideas have been floated for renovating it as a distillery/brewery.

Considering the many changes, the greenway which is slated to connect the World's Fair Park with the Old City by way of Jackson also needs to be rethought. Plans were drafted when the McClung buildings were still standing. Regrettably, that no longer remains a consideration. And prior to seeking development proposals for the now block-long, city-owned property, consideration should be given to the conditions on the ground now. When original plans for the area were being drawn up, both the McClung warehouses and their private ownership was a given. Easements to accommodate the greenway connector deserve a fresh look that take into account the current circumstances, and perhaps a more comprehensive plan for Jackson Avenue from Central to Broadway needs to be discussed before the city begins seeking development proposals for the property.

Our city's most celebrated public space, Market Square, exists in the shadow of the old Market House, which also suffered a fire just prior to its slated demolition. It's proof that an area can thrive despite loss. But that doesn't mean that we should tolerate circumstances that foster disaster. The loss of the McClung Warehouses should not only be looked at as an opportunity to revisit planning, but also as a dire warning of the consequences of tolerating the type of willful neglect that leads to such loss.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified an Old City business. It is John H. Daniel, not M.S. McClellen.