It's the question people ask me, everywhere I go. But I don't even have to go anywhere. I just sit at my desk, and the phone rings, and people ask. Then they change their voice and call the next day and ask again. They ask it even more than the other questions, the ones about the gunfights, the ones about Hank Williams, the ones about Kid Curry. I'm the guy, they figure, that knows the answer. I learned last week that maybe they were wrong.
The question they ask is, "Is there an underground Gay Street?" For years, I've taken a deep breath, looked at the clock, and said something like this: Well, not really. Not in any practical sense. It's just in one block, the 100 block, and there are just some places where you can stick your head out under the sidewalk, that's all. I've been down there. There are some doors and windows that haven't seen the light of day in 80 years, I've seen them. But then, wham, there's a retaining wall, and thousands of tons of dirt fill, from where they leveled out Gay Street and installed the viaduct over the railyards in 1919. And they're cut off from all the other pockets by brick sidewalls. They're just holes.
Still, it's one of my favorite blocks. Most of these buildings were here when Gay Street made a steep drop down to the Southern railyards. For years, this end of Gay Street was something like a rollercoaster, a steep slope down to the bottom, followed by a sharp rise up and over the iron bridge that spanned the railyards. Then, in 1919, they raised the street to level that harsh dip, covering the lower floors of several businesses. Most already had basements, some even sub-basements. Today, they're almost like icebergs, with deceptive expanses of floor space below the street level.
For a century this block was the first newcomers saw of Knoxville when they got off the train. It's the one place hereabouts with connections to the black, immigrant Italian, Jewish, Swiss, and working-class white communities. The 100 block may be the only place in America where hillbilly guitar pickers lunched on kosher pastrami sandwiches and latkes.
It was also once the best block in town to see the old translucent sidewalks, constructed of glass prisms in a cast-iron frame. Manhattan's Soho is famous for its glass sidewalks; on Gay Street, we've generally repaired the broken ones by asphalting them. Only a few are still visible.
One morning six or seven years ago, in response to persistent rumors that there are still streetsigns and storefronts down there, even saloons where you could still see barstools in the windows, photographer Aaron Jay and I knocked on every door on the block to see who would let us have a look downstairs; against their better judgment, several did. What we found were several underground pockets, each about the size of a walk-in closet. They were all dirty and dark. We found no streetlamps, no cigar-stand signs, no circus posters, no saloons. Disappointed, we came back to the office with a photo of a plain sooty window. We ran it to show that there's nothing much down there.
I'm not sure we were looking at it in the right light. Just this fall, maverick developer David Dewhirst has enlisted urban architect Buzz Goss and his wife, designer Cherie Piercy-Goss, to take another look at underground Gay Street. They found a good deal more than I did.
All three have long acquaintance with this block. Dewhirst has lived here for years in a renovated townhouse; his place has some doors and windows in the basement. Back in 1994, the Gosses worked on this block; one of their more exotic renovations was on the east side, below street level. Some of the buildings have three levels below the street. The Gosses' residential project opened up space below the sidewalk, hollowing out areas on either side of the front walkway to allow natural light all the way to the third level below the street, which is now a residence. The apartments have porches with patio furniture.
Goss points out how several buildings were redesigned, circa 1919, to accommodate the new viaduct level; that accounts for the unusual layout of the Emporium Building at Gay and Jackson, which invites visitors to walk up into a large room or down into an even larger room. Looking at the Victorian plaster, he's been trying to figure out how his predecessors redesigned these buildings.
"That's the fun part," Goss says. "It's almost like archaeology."
Other buildings are more mysterious. The lower room at 108 Gay Street includes what appears to be the original cast-iron sidewalk. But alongside it is a detailed Victorian cast-iron pillar rising from an elaborate pedestal that's several feet deeper than the now-buried sidewalk, suggesting earlier, unremembered building-up projects.
With some out-of-state partners, Dewhirst recently acquired some more Victorian-era buildings, notably the elaborate Emporium, the oldest of several buildings that once housed the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Co. It was here about a century ago, and still has the most imposing underground storefront. The windows are long gone, but still standing are two great columns of polished Tennessee marble, detailed to impress, but seen by few since the Wilson administration.
Low on the column front are still the cranks that once rolled out a canopy to shield this grand entrance from rain and sun that haven't visited here in over 80 years.
Most of these basements show some evidence of the old sidewalk, if only in the form of crumbling concrete. But in the building recently occupied by the old Mill Agent is the most surprising survivor of 1919: an old translucent glass sidewalk. Even the street's original steep grade is obvious: the sidewalk climbs several degrees. Its cast-iron frame is pimpled with tiny knobs for traction; in the center of the sidewalk, a few inches from the walls, where thousands once walked, it's worn flat.
Beneath this glass sidewalk is the reason for the glass, the original basement once illuminated by these little windows. Underneath, some of them are thick prisms, perhaps to direct the light.
Dewhirst and Goss recently co-hosted a costume party down here, and the turn-of-the-century glass sidewalk, illuminated from what's now the sub-basement, was the conversation piece.
"It's just fascinating," says Dewhirst of the sidewalks and his whole Gay Street underworld. He says the 100 block's underground presence and its potential is one of the main reasons he has bought almost a dozen buildings on this block.
Goss is the first to admit it's nothing like the big, all-the-way-under-the-street space of Underground Atlanta. "It's more like Krakow, Poland," he says. There, he says, you can find intimate cafes beneath the street level. That's how he and Dewhirst picture the 100 block: as a hive of galleries and cafes connected along the ragtime-era sidewalk.
Dewhirst and Goss are already planning to punch through brick walls between individual addresses to complete the sidewalks on either side of the street. Dewhirst even pictures the walkway wrapping around underneath the viaduct via a catwalk to connect with itself. Construction will begin before the end of the year, and Goss expects to have some units finished by next summer.
"This kind of thing could only happen in Knoxville," he says, waving a hand at the up-and-down architecture once required by the city's awkward blufftop location. "This is what we've got." He thinks it's the sort of weird feature people will talk about when they entertain visitors: "Oh, you're coming to town? You have to see this."