The bare hardwood floors resound as
Work and craftsmanship.
John Craig just bought himself a big new brick house on Cumberland Avenue. It's a nice-looking place that some of his extravagant neighbors in Farragut might envy: three stories plus a full basement, 6,000 square feet in all, with all kinds of amenities of the sort that come only with houses built in 1910, like a butler's pantry, multiple fireplaces, sliding doors that recess into the walls, a sunroom, a broad front porch and above it a door to a balcony. It's the sort of place that, fixed up a little, might go for a million dollars.
John got it for $7,000. It would have been a good deal even in 1910. There's one catch, though, and it's kind of a big one. He has to take the house with him. The house isn't welcome here. The University of Tennessee, which has owned it since just before Pearl Harbor, wants it gone. It's in the way of the prospective Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, planned to be built at the corner of Cumberland and 17th. The Keller House, as it's known, is supposed to be gone by June 20.
Last Friday, John was talking it over with a burly guy in a ball cap. Don Toothman, of Toothman Structure Movers ("Moving the Unmovable") is based in Springfield, Tennessee, but he has worked all over. There's no flinch in his eyes.
His biggest job ever was one of the biggest jobs in human history. "I was involved in the Newark Air Terminal move. It's in the Guinness Book of World Records , the heaviest thing ever moved on rubber tires."
The bare hardwood floors resound as Toothman walks through the house, pounding on a wall now and then. His silent assistant, a man with a camera, takes pictures of everything. It doesn't look all that great to a pedestrian reporter; the paint's peeling badly, and the house is littered with the flotsam of aspiring MFA's: a few forgotten abstracts stacked in one room, a couple of naked baby dolls in another.
"Looks pretty good," Toothman says. He's glad the walls aren't solid brick; one layer of brick is lighter and easier to deal with. He remarks on the hexagonal tiles in the bath areas, that the old stuff is nearly invulnerable during a move. He pokes around in the basement rooms, notes that there's no termite damage, and ventures into the dark, unfinished part of the third floor. There's just a minor issue on the third floor, some sagging that causes a door to stick.
We're used to hearing guys in tweed jackets talking up preservation. There's nothing about Toothman's accent or straightforward grin that would stick out in any truck stop.
"Good thing about these houses is they didn't cut no corners when they built them," he says. "Just depends on how Knoxville has tuned itself up to it. If you don't be careful, it's all gonna be gone. And if gas gets up to $3, people are gonna start coming back to town."
The house has some history to it. Its longest-term owner-resident was Ernest Keller and his wife, Louise. Mr. Keller, a member of the family for whom Keller Bend is named, was a businessman and, in the 1920s, a member of City Council. A younger cousin of his, reformer Helen Keller, who visited Knoxville more than once to give speeches, stayed here when she was in town.
UT acquired the house in 1941, and since then it has served as the Home Management House and, more recently as the Art Studio Annex. In 2002, UT began discussing the site as a place for the Baker Center.
As is always the case when a Knoxville building becomes inconvenient, there have been rumors, recited with authority, of structural problems. A third-floor closet door sticks, and the stairway railing is missing a spool.
As they tour the third floor room, Craig admits, "Some people say it's in terrible shape...."
Toothman grins and shakes his head. "They're ignorant," he says. He has seen a lot of old houses, and seems impressed with this place.
"It's definitely worth moving," says Toothman, "if we can figure out a way to get it from Point A to Point B." The Point B Craig has found is just two blocks away, on the corresponding block of Clinch. Right next door to the burned and apparently saved Pickle Mansion is a vacant lot.
"This is one of the few blocks where this house would not look out of place," Craig says. He has made a provisional agreement with the new owner to plant the house there.
As they approach the vacant lot, they step back as a stranger, his head obscured in a motorcycle helmet, pedals a bright red moped up the sidewalk. Without stopping or turning his head, he interjects, "Congratulations on saving the house!" Craig does not recognize him. In Fort Sanders, apparitions start to seem normal.
Congratulations are premature. But Toothman's questions aren't whether the house can be moved. He's done it before. Most of his questions have to do with the best route to roll a big house from Cumberland Avenue up to Clinch. The hill's one problem; bigger problems are the obstacles along the way. UT's concrete pedestrian bridge makes a right turn on Cumberland impossible. A left turn might be the way to go, but dealing with major telephone lines like those on 17th is a problem. The ideal route may be to march the house straight forward, across Cumberland, and through the courtyard by Sophronia Strong Hall to White Avenue.
"After the move, it's just a repair job," Toothman says. "We'll scuff up the roof, going down the street, with tree limbs...."
Craig is owner of Segundo Properties, a development company just finishing restorations on a four-story mixed-use retail, office, and residential building on Market Square. The company also has restoration projects in Old North and elsewhere in Fort Sanders. He expects to make a living from all those properties.
The Keller House project is in a different category. "Only reason to do this is to save it," he says. "This is definitely a non-profit venture." He doesn't expect to make any money off the project, and is resigned to the idea that he might lose some.
"There's hardly any way to make money on this," he admits. "You could move it to Sequoyah Hills. A big house, 6,000 square feet, on Cherokee Boulevard, could sell for $1.25 million. Maybe."
He sounds as if he'd rather keep it in its neighborhood. In fact, he'd rather keep it where it is. Craig still has hopes that the Baker Center might find a use for an Edwardian house in its plans, perhaps as a guest house. The connections to Helen Keller, who devoted her life to improving public policy, would seem a bonus.
Moving the house to Clinch is actually Craig's Plan B. How he'll raise the $125,000 to $350,000 necessary to move the house, he's not yet sure. He's just sure that, if the house can't stay here, it ought to be done.
"From an economic standpoint, it doesn't make sense to tear it down," he says. "You're not gonna build anything like this in a new building. It's too expensive. Look at the mortar joints on those things," he says, pointing at the exceptionally narrow gaps between the bricks. "That's hard to do. Work and craftsmanship. Why would you throw that away?"