Saving the Old with Passion

Preservation will bring more progress than other options

Which meant that, in order to save some 250 downtown jobs, the Sprankle and the less distinctive building to its east were sacrificed (perhaps if the Sprankle were still flanked on the other side by the old Park Hotel, the analogy would be more apt).

Doubts that are now focused on the 500 block of

Gay Street

and the city's desire to bring forth a movie theater.

For the choice is not, as some folks are fond of framing it, "between progress and preservation."

While nobody wore robes or Roman armor and the dialogue wasn't subtitled in case you weren't too up on your Aramaic, this past Easter weekend downtown Knoxville hosted an outdoor drama that stirred up a lot of passion from the city's small but growing sect of preservationists. I'm speaking, of course, of the demolition of the Sprankle building—an event that, while it had been long foretold, few thought would arrive so precipitously.

That changed, apparently, with the city's decision to wash its hands of the matter and let the Pharisees of Home Federal have their way. The decision was understandable, in some ways, given the considerable cross of Convention Center debt the city currently bears (so much for that savior ) and Home Federal's hints of an impending exodus. Which meant that, in order to save some 250 downtown jobs, the Sprankle and the less distinctive building to its east were sacrificed (perhaps if the Sprankle were still flanked on the other side by the old Park Hotel, the analogy would be more apt).

Of course those jobs are only saved if, founded upon the rock and rubble of the Sprankle, Home Federal builds its new bank—something that, given the two-year delay between demolition and the date of construction, requires a leap of faith. Otherwise the preservationist argument that the Sprankle and its neighbor might be needed to help house downtown's growing multitudes might not seem so apocryphal. Considering all the projects currently coming online, by the time Home Federal is forecasted to break ground, preservation of buildings such as the Sprankle and their conversion into lofts will have pumped far more private money into downtown than the bank's ballyhooed promise of a $7 million investment (I wonder, what does that work out to in silver?). And unlike loaves and fishes, no amount of miracles can conjure up more historic buildings. Although, with downtown lofts currently selling for $160 per square foot, adding a couple floors of residential to the top of Home Federal's proposed building just might be, uh, bankable.

Compounding the tearing of hair and rending of garments is that the loss of the Sprankle has dealt historic preservation its second big denial since the ascension of the new administration—the first being the demolition of the J. Allen Smith House on Lyons View Pike. And while there have been miracles to sustain the faithful since then—the resurrection of the Pickle Mansion springs to mind—the Sprankle demolition has only added to the host of doubting Thomases. Doubts that are now focused on the 500 block of Gay Street and the city's desire to bring forth a movie theater. Will the S&W cafeteria—which has a much stronger hold on the community's consciousness than the Sprankle ever did—be dismissed as stony ground where redevelopment won't take root? Or will it and the block's other historic buildings be considered good ground, to yield fruit that will flourish and multiply?

Well, the cock hasn't crowed just yet. And the path hasn't been chosen: whether it's to be the broad, wide and altogether easy way that leads to the destruction of these downtown landmarks, or the more complicated, constricted one beyond "the strait gate" that would not only allow the buildings to be saved but also allow them to bring forth good fruit in the form of private investment and sales-tax recapture. For the choice is not, as some folks are fond of framing it, "between progress and preservation." Instead it might just be between some progress without preservation and even more progress with it. It all depends on the weighty challenge of accommodating Regal's needs while keeping the buildings intact and the costs down. Should that stone be rolled back, well, here's hoping that somebody's son rises to the occasion.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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