urban_renewal (2006-11)

Condos that were cool before condos were cool

Sterchi, v1.0

by Matt Edens

I can recall how, not long ago after the Sterchi Building on the 100 block of Gay Street was converted into loft apartments, some people were astonished at the rents (even though, as I remarked at the time, they were more or less in line with many of the new upscale complexes coming online out west). So imagine my surprise when, in last week’s cover story [March 2, “A Brick Ceiling?”], Barry Henderson wrote how the Sterchi could fill the need for smaller, more “affordable” condos once it is converted in the not-so-distant future (renovated as apartments for tax credit purposes, the building must remain rental for five years).

But what about the interim, if you’re interested in living in a cool downtown condo but can’t afford prices that are quickly climbing towards $200 a square foot? (And people thought those apartments were pricey?)

Well, perhaps you should still consider living in a Sterchi Building, but an earlier edition. You see, way back around 1921, when Gay Street’s Sterchi Building opened as the flagship of a chain of 60 furniture stores across the South, the Sterchi family had already cornered their own share of the downtown residential market—the corner of Fifth Avenue and King Street, to be precise. It was around this time that the Sterchi family built three fine apartment buildings on this corner, all of them still standing today: the Sterchi Flats, the Lucerne and the Nina (the smallest of the three, it was named for a female member of the family).

This building, the Lucerne, was named for the family’s Swiss hometown (the Sterchis were among the 40,000 or so Swiss who came to this country in the decade before the Civil War, a small but significant number of which settled in Knoxville). Originally built as fashionable apartments, by the late 1980s the building had declined along with the neighborhood. It was little better than a flophouse when pioneer developer Kristopher Kendrick—well in front of downtown’s current condo craze—bought the building and renovated it back to its former glory.

Now it and its neighbors in Emory Place fill what I consider to be a vital niche, linking our rapidly gentrifying downtown with the just as gentrified neighborhood of Fourth and Gill to the north. And, while it isn’t quite downtown proper, that might not be such a bad thing, particularly when compared to condos costing twice as much.

For under $70,000, the Lucerne essentially offers downtown living at a fraction of the downtown price: bare brick and hardwood plus French doors and ceiling fans just a five-minute walk from the Old City and a few short blocks beyond to Market Square, Sapphire and more.

The Lucerne: Unit 12