The Sprankle, RIP

One last column about what could have been

The Sprankle Building, about which I've written several times over the last four years, is now a pile of brick rubble on the southeast corner of Union and Walnut.

Sprankle Flats, the five-story brick building built by pioneer developer Ben Sprankle in 1904, was originally an upscale residential and professional building. Home Federal acquired it in 1992 upon Charlie Sprankle's sudden death. They were landlords of the building's several ground-floor businesses for the next 12 years. In 2002, they evicted their tenants, including Pete's Coffee Shop, one of the oldest restaurant spaces in Knoxville.

Two years ago, the Metropolitan Planning Commission announced that there would be a public hearing about the building's future.

The people who claimed it was structurally unsound could hear from experienced renovators who had studied it and found it sound. The people who claimed the building had no historical value could hear from the people, including me, who thought it did, and our specific reasons. The people who claimed that it wouldn't be feasible to fix it up could hear from the people who wanted to buy it from the bank, at a considerable profit to them, and return it to upscale residential use, its original purpose.

It would have been ideal for such a thing, on the western UT side of downtown and almost surrounded by like residences, including new ones under construction just across the street, and with one and perhaps two groceries likely to open up within a block of it in the near future. While they weren't looking, Home Federal found itself in a neighborhood of homes.

I went to attend that meeting at least three times. I usually attempt to affect a reporter's impartiality at public meetings, but this time I had a speech I was going to give. The Sprankle was one of the oldest residential buildings downtown, this classic five-story walkup; it was the last of its type here, but that turn-of-the-century style so versatile and serviceable that it's the basic building style that still dominates Manhattan.

Old it may be, but it was built of materials, like original-growth timber, that are hardly even available on this planet anymore. The building had lots of historic connections, especially to amiable old Ben Sprankle himself, who lived here and was known to offer guests lemonade and a card game or his own recitation of "The Charge Of the Light Brigade."

There was within the Sprankle an intact restaurant space even older than the oldest claims of Regas; in 1937, when Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt read Ernie Pyle's national newspaper column about a rare encounter with the last surviving slave of a U.S. president, a pastry chef who worked in that restaurant, it was famous.

A restaurant operated in that space continually until Home Federal evicted Pete's in 2002.

The promised public meeting was postponed for a month, then another, then another. Then the bank made an agreement with the city that it wouldn't do anything without 45-day notice to the city.

A lot of us, including the preservationist group Knox Heritage, had assumed that the 45-day notice would be our last chance to make a case for saving the place. That agreement was with the city government of Knoxville, not the people of Knoxville.

The notice the people of Knoxville got was not quite two days. The bank announced its imminent demolition last Wednesday, just after we'd gone to press; Friday morning, cranes were tearing the Sprankle apart.

So, I've got this talk that I never gave, and now Sprankle Flats is a pile of busted bricks.


Loaded in the news reports was an implicit threat: the demolition of the Sprankle, the daily reported without further explanation, "will allow the city's largest locally owned bank to keep 250 employees downtown." They daily toed the bank line without looking into the reasons why they had no other options, but it seems to me there were at least half a dozen ways in which the bank could have expanded or rebuilt downtown without tearing down a building that earnest developers have wanted to restore for 15 years. I outlined some of them in this space about a year ago. With so many big, dumb, surface lots, and undistinguished buildings downtown, several of them are obvious.

"It's just old," they say. Every time someone claims an American building built in the 20th century is "just old" and needs to be torn down, I'd like to see them sign a declaration that Tennessee architecture and engineering is inferior to, say, that of the French. In the beautiful parts of Paris, a 100-year-old building is one of the impertinent newer ones. Somehow, buildings don't seem to age as fast in Paris as they do here.

What they mean to say, perhaps, is, "it's just old, and we didn't take care of it ." Still, most thought it was eminently salvageable. Architects I know tell me that compared to some Herculean downtown preservation tasks, the Sprankle would not have been the toughest job they've tackled.

"They just don't have any imagination," some complain of Home Federal's leadership. And to be fair, most don't go into a banking career due to an abundance of imagination. After our experience with the Butchers, perhaps imagination in a banker is not even an admirable quality.

At least we got to see drawings, albeit right before the demolition crews arrived. The Sprankle space is going to be a surface parking lot for two years. Then they're going to build a smallish three-story building in a style popular in suburban commercial areas in the 1980s. Its size is kind of ironic; in recent years, one of the most common complaints about new buildings has been that the new ones are always built out of scale, bigger than what it replaces, too big for its neighbors. But the new bank building will be much smaller than the Sprankle. In the drawing it's dwarfed by its neighbors, the Pembroke and the Grand Union. It may give us the impression that downtown Knoxville is going to be a smaller, more modest thing than the downtown that served a city with a population of 35,000 a century ago.

Still, for Home Federal, it's not bad. Home Federal is revered for its philanthropy, but not for architecture. Architects tell me Home Federal's one of the cheapest clients around. Their relatively new Cedar Bluff bank has been described by a neighbor as a cut-rate gymnasium.

Everybody who has talked to one of the bank executives say, with some astonishment, "You know, he really doesn't seem like such a bad guy."

And they're not awful guys. They don't kill anybody. They probably don't get drunk and race pickup trucks through my neighborhood on a Saturday night. They probably don't even litter.

They're just used to a different paradigm, one that dominated downtown development until the 1980s or early '90s. That downtown is chiefly an office park, a 9-to-5 place—certainly no place to live, or to tarry much after dark; and a historic building was one that was necessarily famous. (Each generation redefines "historic," surprising the elders. More than a century ago, many old timers insisted that the only "historic" homes in Knoxville were the simple homes of the city's founders; they happily tore down some gorgeous antebellum mansions.)

Bank executives are used to being considered Knoxville's unquestioned Solons, our Order of the Garter, the Fathers Who Know Best. When they levy veiled threats about moving to the suburbs, they clearly think they're doing so in loving, paternal ways. They're not used to being questioned. And when they say a building is structurally deficient or not worth saving, they're confident that many will believe them, as they may well believe themselves.

The developers and architects and dynamic business people who have been involved in doing impressive things downtown over the last 10 years disagree about a lot of downtown issues, but as near as I can tell, they agree on this one. To a one, they think of the demolition of the Sprankle as something of a tragedy, a waste, and a permanently lost opportunity.

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