citybeat (2005-44)

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A Clear View

New funding for Knoxville’s highest perch

Masterpiece Theater

Downtown cinema underway

Wednesday, Oct. 26

House Mountain stands amidst a landscape of rolling hills like a conspicuous peak of meringue on a chocolate pie. Its crest, at 2,100 feet, is the highest point in Knox County, and it’s no easy feat getting there. As just about anyone who’s hiked it will tell you in recollection of the strenuous trek, “It’s short, but it’s straight up .”

But the view from the top makes all the huffing and puffing worthwhile. And though the landmark has been in and out of favor as far as funding goes since its designation as a state park in 1987, with the state threatening to close it down a few years ago, it’s recently been redesignated with the somewhat befuddling title, “State National Park.” This means, though it’s part privately-owned and part-owned by the State of Tennessee and operated under a joint effort by the state and Knox County, the 850-acre park will soon receive a federal grant of $253,000 due to the efforts of Congressman Jimmy Duncan.

Positioned just a few turns off of Rutledge Pike in East Knoxville, House Mountain isn’t far off the beaten path, making it one of the area’s most accessible spots for dayhiking.

The first half of the climb is marked by moist tangles of dark wood and vines against a nearly opaque blanket—neon green leaves of sugar maples, tulip poplars and buckeyes. Farther up, the terrain turns rockier, giving way to drier vegetation like table mountain pines and mountain laurels, growing in patches interspersed among massive outcroppings of boulders. The trail zigzags like the path of a downhill skier, making the sharp incline a bit less steep toward the top.

Despite its proximity to the city, House Mountain is relatively undiscovered, attracting only three sets of hikers on a recent Friday—a perfect fall day that practically begged folks to play hooky from work. However, Doug Bataille, senior director of parks and recreation in Knox County, says the site sees bigger numbers on the weekends, when church, scout and community groups flock there. The funding, he says, will go to expanding parking, improving signage, and installing a picnic shelter and restroom facilities to accommodate such groups.

“A place like House Mountain is important because, as the Smokies get more congested, it’s good to have a place to hike close to home where you don’t have to sit in traffic,” says Bataille. “The changes are going to be small, but it will be nice.”

Though funding for environmental improvements might always seem to be a good thing, one might wonder why such a short hike, which takes an afternoon at most, no matter which route you take, needs a toilet. The massive flats of sandstone atop the bald crest make for a pretty serene picnic spot as they are. Local Josh Fletcher, who can be found wandering with his Jack Russell terrier on House Mountain from time to time, worries that he site will become overwhelmed by the new additions, its pristine beauty destroyed. In fact, he says, the site doesn’t even need maintenance for the most part. “People up here take care of it; scout troops will come up here and work on it,” he says. “I’m not really looking forward to the changes, but it’s nice having this in your backyard.”

Rounding the last bend in the trail, you have to do a little rock climbing before you reach the top. Then there’s a big flat boulder that seems custom-made for resting. The Cumberland and Smoky Mountains outline a staggered horizon in the distance. Beyond miles and miles of trees and farmland, you can just make out the buildings of downtown Knoxville on a clear day. They seem small and far away. But, they’re not.

Masterpiece Theater

For all the dust clouds and yellow tape, the demolitions offered Knoxvillians tangible evidence that the multi-screen movie theater project has officially broken ground, be it in piecemeal fashion. The posterior ends of the S&W cafeteria, the former Athletic House, the Central House Hotel/WROL and Hanover Shoe store will also be destroyed, but their anterior will be stabilized and ultimately renovated in time to coincide with the cinema’s grand opening. 

“The demolition is obviously underway,” says Blaise Burch, director of property development and cinema project manager for the Public Building Authority. “We’re looking at putting the foundations in the first week of January ’06 and completing construction in November of ’06. We’re not going to mess around here. We’re going to get her done.”

The final design, conceptualized and outlined by Kansas City-based TK Architects, Inc., is “99 percent complete,” says Burch. The firm recently submitted nine final drawings to the PBA.

The project’s primary architect, Mike Cummings, says his company, which specializes in cinema design, has assisted with nearly 160 theater projects in the past. The Knoxville project, though, has proven to be “as complex as any that we’ve had to deal with, with the three buildings that are being saved,” he says.

TK has taken historic cues from the facade of the long-demolished, old Riviera Theatre—especially its marquee—and from other Gay Street landmarks. As for the side and rear of the building, facing Clinch Avenue and State Street, Cummings says he was careful to avoid the egregiously boxy, blank, windowless look of most cineplexes. “We tried to break up the facade so that it appears to be several smaller buildings, as opposed to just one large building.” Essentially, the firm aims for a “modern interpretation” of a Gay Street building.

Blaine Construction, the cinema’s contractor, sent out specifications to potential subcontractors and expects to have all of the bids for the project submitted by Nov. 22. A request for proposals is also out for those interested in redeveloping the four buildings just south of the new theater. Applicants must reply to the RFP by Tuesday, Nov. 8.

SEVEN DAYS IN OCTOBER - NOVEMBER

Wednesday, Oct. 26

Thursday, Oct. 27

Friday, Oct. 28

Saturday, Oct. 29

Sunday, Oct. 30

Monday, Oct. 31

Tuesday, Nov. 1

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

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