Seeing 131 S. Gay Street, the familiar dark-red brick building with green trim, with a big blue demolition chute is like seeing your grandmother in the hospital with tubes up her nose. The place we were once privileged to know as Harold’s kosher deli closed unexpectedly early in the summer, after 57 years in the same location.
John Craig, who heads a relatively new preservationist development company called Segundo Properties, bought the 85-year-old building shortly after the beloved eatery closed. The demolition work is necessary surgery to save the building. Several floor joists are rotten; in at least one place, the floor’s open through to the basement.
“I’m only the fourth owner of the building since it was built,” Craig says. The building went up around 1920, just after the raising of the street to accommodate the Gay Street Viaduct spoiled some previous buildings for practical use. The area was then still central to Knoxville’s small but prolific immigrant community. Harold Shersky, who ran the deli all those years, was born just around the corner.
Craig’s men are at work cleaning the place out; they’ve already removed the old dropped ceiling, revealing a lofty stamped-tin ceiling maybe 14 feet high, and still in good shape. The removal revealed some whimsical wallpaper, decorated with little images of tubby chefs running around with giant jugs of Chianti and link sausages on long forks. It’s classic 1940s iconography. I would be tempted to keep it.
Harold’s was a street-level proposition in its latter years, but many remember the days, maybe 15 years ago, when the basement bar handled the overflow crowds which were a near-daily phenomenon at Harold’s. Specific plans are still months away, but Craig talks about the basement’s front linking to a projected underground sidewalk which may reopen the fabled underground part of the street covered by viaduct construction in 1919. In back, the basement opens out into a small wooded yard. “A bar or something down here with a back patio, surrounded by trees, would be really nice,” Craig says.
We don’t think of Harold’s having an upstairs, though, and few have seen it recently. It’s entered by way of a separate doorway on the street. Up 30 wooden steps is a big, long room. For years, Harold used the second floor mainly for storage. But before that, it was a separate business. Harold didn’t run it, but knew something about it. Behind all the deli gear was an old bar. In the back was a single bathroom with a urinal and a separate closet with a door on it for a toilet. On the urinal is written in what looks like red nail polish: PLEASE HELP US KEEP THE PLACE CLEAN. STAND CLOSE. Another, near the toilet, pleads, WE AIM TO PLEASE. SO PLEASE AIM.
It’s a men’s room, and only that. There doesn’t appear to have ever been a women’s room up there.
The plaster walls are covered with three layers of wallpaper. Beneath the ground-in dirt, the hardwood floors are beautiful, and reddish. There’s evidence the second floor once had a raised, trolley-style skylight, like Manhattan’s, which was built down the hill during the same era. Craig hopes to rebuild it.
On the north wall, near the stairway, is a large, glossy, bright red sign that’s mostly covered by wall plaster. You can just see the top of it, red in a sort of hexagonal shape. It seems to be painted on the side of the older building next door. It certainly predates Harold’s, predates the earlier kosher delis, and predates the construction of this building. It’s likely an advertisement for whatever they sold next door.
Over near the bar are remnants of the business that used to be transacted up here: a couple of framed chalkboards with some interesting markings smeared on in what appears to have been wet chalk. One lists baseball teams, aligning with a series of numbers that may be either hits or runs, categorized by day of the week.
Down the left side, under the National League heading, are MIL BRO NY PHL PIT CIN.... It appears to list both the Milwaukee Braves, who arrived there from Boston in 1953, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, who left for Los Angeles in 1957—so those chalk marks describe a week in baseball in the mid-’50s. A baseball fan with a computer program could probably use the statistics to tell exactly what week it was.
At the top of both the American and National League rosters is the phrase “3 Way 10,” which I’m sure makes perfect sense to a lot of sporting gentlemen out there.
Its sports-bar persona may date as far back as World War II, when it was the Moose Club. In the early ’50s it became Al’s Sports Center. Harold remembers it as “Abe’s Poolhall.” Others say it was sometimes called “Snooky’s.” There were several such places around downtown: basically a poolhall with opportunities to bet on sports, especially pro baseball and college football. Gambling was illegal, but generally overlooked.
Another chalkboard is marked, UCLA 18 / VOLS 42 and ALA 9 / VOLS 10. It’s easier to look up; it describes two back-to-back home games during the 1968 season, the latter one on Nov. 2, when Doug Dickey’s Vols were then still undefeated. (They lost to Auburn the following Saturday.)
Was that UCLA game on Nov. 2, 1968, the last game ever bet on up here?
The City Directory suggests that Al’s Sports Center actually closed around 1967; 131 1/2 S. Gay is officially “vacant” in 1968. But it still had boards and a bar and a good bathroom. Somebody figured it might as well be used.
Craig found a black-and-white photograph that shows some tough-looking customers from the noir era, shooting pool, with the bar in the background.
Craig doesn’t seem inclined to reintroduce the gambling den to downtown Knoxville. He means to convert this second floor into a good-sized apartment (at 1,500 feet, it’s bigger than some houses).
“It would be great if we could have a Harold’s-style deli,” he says. He says he has talked to some folks about the possibility, but final decisions will have to be months off. For the time being, Craig is leaving up the familiar metal facade with the Harold’s sign outside.