A couple of issues ago I wrote about the old mostly vacant post-office building on Main, which happens to bear a striking resemblance to its slightly later counterpart in Nashville now known as the Frist Center. Though Knoxville's is credited to architect Albert (A.B.) Baumann, Jr., I'd learned from Nashville sources that both post offices were apparently conceived from one original source, a Department of Treasury model inspired by the well-known French-born architect Paul Cret.
In Knoxville's case, the design may have had a more direct influence than the Treasury Dept.'s bureaucracy. I learned from Baumann's son, Wallace, that A. B. Baumann had studied with Cret himself at the University of Pennsylvania a few years before he worked on the Knoxville design. Baumann was a great student and admirer of Cret's work long before the P.O. contract came up. Baumann says that the Nashville architects requested copies of his father's designs, but the Knoxville architect refused. Baumann says that many of his father's colleagues believed the Nashville post office's design owed a lot to its elder sibling in Knoxville.
I also raised the question of what we could do with a building of this sort, if not keep it as a post office and courthouse. It does look like an art museum or a library, but we already have those downtown, well situated in good buildings.
Mac Overton, an online reader in Hong Kong, has an idea based on an interesting precedent. Singapore's Fullerton Hotel is a rehab of an old marble post office. As advertised on the web (www.fullertonhotel.com), it looks a good deal bigger than Knoxville's P.O., but of a similar style, long and low, with lots of columns.
The expansive corridors of the Knoxville post office, especially on the second and third floors, do look like they could handle maybe a 60-room hotel, even without doubling the floors, like the Fullerton reportedly did. It would make an especially charming one. Maybe that elaborate old courtroom, with its voluptuous ceiling art, would make a great indoor swimming pool. Plus, it's only about a block and a half from the new convention center which, we hear, is suffering from the uncertainty about what hotels can be built this close to it.
Earlier this summer I wrote about a photo album I found at the TVA library: it comprises several black-and-white photos of Knoxville's downtown waterfront in 1941, a few years before that area is depicted in Cormac McCarthy's novel, Suttree. There are lots of pictures of Gay Street from that era, but it's hard to find photos of Knoxville's riverside underbelly, a neighborhood of a few hundred people who lived as scavengers, fishermen, and bootleggers. Many older folks don't remember that neighborhood at all, but a couple who do have intimate memories of it responded to my column.
Bill Willard went to St. Mary's, the Catholic elementary school downtown, until 1936, when the third grader was injured in an accident on the concrete playground. His folks pulled him out and sent him to the old Bell House, the public school on the south end of State Street. There he was outnumbered by tough riverfront kids. Though he wasn't rich—Willard's mom worked for KUB—he stuck out at the Bell House, where even the teacher called him "St. Mary's." ("How inspired can you be about something like that," he asks.)
The first day, during a kickball game, a riverfront bully named Charles Browning stole the ball from him. For Willard, it was the beginning of a five-year ordeal. Browning would pick on him, beat him up. Willard spent much of his grade-school career trying to avoid the Browning brothers.
"In sixth grade, I got smart," Willard says. He befriended another tough riverfront kid named Fillmore LaFollette and hired him as a bodyguard. LaFollette's fee was 10 cents a week. He says he usually paid him in the form of a movie ticket to a western at the old Strand Theater on Gay Street. It was a rare treat for a riverfront kid, but Willard seems to think he got the better half of that bargain.
Willard heard dark stories about what went on at the riverfront, stories about two beautiful girls who lived down there with their father. "I was amazed at some of the stuff I heard, and didn't understand it," Willard says.
Though his school was hardly two blocks from the riverfront neighborhood, Willard says he never went there himself. "I frankly was afraid to go down there," he says, "and I never had any good reason to.
Willard survived somehow. After 25 years in the Air Force, Willard returned to Knoxville still looking over his shoulder. Through the library he found that his old nemesis had been killed in a fight in a Gay Street bar some years before.
Not everybody in Shacktown was mean. I also got a note from one lady who lived as a little girl in the Mulvaney Street area in the early '40s. She had friends in her Girl Scout troop who lived in the old houseboats.
"Lawton Oglesby lived in that two-story houseboat you talk about," she remembers. "He was well-known in Knoxville for retrieving the bodies of people who had drowned in the river." Oglesby once offered to take the scouts on a river excursion in his houseboat. "We arrived with our bag lunches ready to go, but the boat wouldn't." Oglesby couldn't start his motor, but he didn't want to disappoint the girls. "I remember him going to a neighbor to borrow a smaller motorboat and hooking it up to the houseboat and pulling us down the river."