The Sprankle Building is, for the moment, still standing on Union Avenue. It doesn't take much imagination to look past the faded, yolky whitewash and the gloomy weatherstained plywood that covers the upper windows to see the handsome building it once was.
During the Edwardian era, this five-story neoclassical brick building was Sprankle Flats, home to successful young single men and wealthy widowers. Several prominent Knoxvillians—industrialists, surgeons, lawyers, bankers—lived here. You can still see the faux gable where the old entrance was. On the ground floor it always hosted a variety of thriving streetfront businesses. A year ago, it was still one of the liveliest blocks downtown, home to a barber shop, a clothier, a cobbler, a finance company, and a cafe. But a year ago, Home Federal announced that this March, the bank would be evicting all the tenants of the Sprankle Building and the smaller building next door.
Most of the evictees are already gone, but one's not. It's the restaurant at 428 Union Ave. that goes back more than 80 years. It's one of the oldest intact restaurant spaces in Knoxville. It still has the stamped-tin ceilings to prove it.
Some years ago I blundered across a story about this building. Back in 1937, popular newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle spent a lot of time in Knoxville and interviewed "Uncle Bill" Johnson, the last surviving slave of a U.S. president, in a cafe where he worked as a pastry chef. Pyle's interview of Johnson caught the attention of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited Uncle Bill up to the White House for an official state visit. I was flabbergasted when I looked deeper into the story to find out the cafe where Uncle Bill worked, and which Pyle described in his 1937 column, was still intact, as Pete's.
It may be as popular today as it was in 1937. People still stand in line to get a table at noon, and the counter's lined with Knoxville lawyers and businessmen. Pete Natour has been interested in buying the building for years, with an eye toward renovating it. He discussed the idea with Charlie Sprankle, owner of the building, grandson of influential developer Ben Sprankle who once lived here. Charlie Sprankle wanted more for the building than Natour could afford at the time.
In 1990, Sprankle died in a freak asphalt-truck accident in Bearden. Without offering the building for sale publicly, his survivors sold Sprankle's Union Avenue buildings to Home Federal. The bank reportedly got a pretty good deal.
Since then, the lawful owners have maintained if not improved the building. Though some Home Federal officials have been heard to mutter that the building is "dangerous," the city hasn't declared it so, and some renovation experts say it looks to be in pretty good shape.
Many are convinced that the Sprankle Building could be a home once again. It's located in an especially propitious location, half a block from Market Square, where a grocery store and other residential amenities are planned, and walking distance to the convention center and UT campus.
There's a clear demand for renovated residential space here; the Sprankle's next-door neighbor is the Pembroke. A larger building also built by Ben Sprankle, it was long known as the New Sprankle Building. Renovated as condominiums, it has been fully occupied for years, home to retirees, UT grad students, TVA officials, young professionals.
Around the country, buildings of lesser character are being renovated. But it's not like Knoxville has its head in the mud. The city's recent tax breaks for large-scale residential development make such projects more feasible than ever before. Well-placed citizens have quietly urged Home Federal to do something more productive with the Sprankle. Knox Heritage, an organization of prominent historical preservationists, has listed it as their most-endangered property. The Ashe administration has protested Home Federal's decision. Prominent officials of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, the Central Business Improvement District, and the Chamber Partnership are against it.
The only group that seems to think it's a good idea to tear down the Sprankle Building is the leadership of Home Federal, and they don't care to discuss it.
The people at Home Federal aren't bad people. The bank donates hundreds of thousands to worthy causes, and in the past they've displayed an interest in promoting Knoxville's heritage. A recent ad campaign boosted Home Federal's part in Knoxville's 20th Century heritage. I helped with the research on that campaign.
But some of our neighbors down the street are getting on in years, and I'm not sure how much they get around. Many of the folks in charge at Home Federal came up in a time when nobody in their right minds wanted to live downtown, and the only sensible thing to do with any century-old apartment building was to tear it down and pave it flat. Tearing a building down for surface parking might have seemed a good idea in Knoxville in 1958. To those in charge at Home Federal, it still does.
Pete plans to move into the new parking garage a block west of the Sprankle. It's an admirable building, for a parking garage, but Pete would rather stay in the Sprankle. For now, Pete's still open at his old place with the stamped-tin ceilings at 428 Union Ave. Drop by for breakfast or lunch, like Ernie Pyle did, and have a look around. And if anybody out there has more influence at Home Federal than I do, please let them know what you think.