The Lost City
Downtown shakes off its dust
The Lost City
by Matt Edens
September, in Knoxville, never seems like a separate month to me. Instead I’ve always simply considered it addendum on the end the summer, a final few sweltering weeks before we mark the change of season with fallen leaves and football Saturdays.
But this year, now that August has slowly given way to autumn, there has been another, almost unnoticed transition. The summer that’s just finally, reluctantly slipped past may be the last when an afternoon’s stroll down Gay Street’s broad but barren sidewalks is punctuated by the pungent aroma of dank, decaying plaster hidden behind faux-painted plywood—“Building Breath,” a Market Square pioneer once dubbed it, the slow death-rattle of a downtown sinking into ruin and oblivion….
That was then, this is now. Gay Street’s sidewalks still aren’t “bustling,” but chances are you’ll have to dodge construction barricades on just about any stroll down what was once Knoxville’s main shopping street. Downtown is in the midst of what, when compared to recent years, can only be described as a building boom. And much of the activity centers on what, just a few years, or even months, ago, were those sad, ruinous relics of Gay Street’s retail glory days.
Just last week, in these very pages, Joe Sullivan remarked on the impressive role-call of projects underway or in the works on Gay Street: the Penney’s, Commerce, Charter Federal, Farragut and Burwell Buildings. And this weekend, City People’s downtown home tour takes in well over a dozen different residences: fifteen buildings in all. Some, like the Fire Street Lofts and Crown Court Condominiums in the upper floors of the downtown YMCA, are currently under construction. Other, like the row houses of Kendrick Place, originally renovated for the 1982 World’s Fair, or the Old City’s Jackson Ateliers, are pioneering projects that predate the current boom, dating back to the days when few but a handful of believers had faith in downtown’s future.
Their faith appears to have been well founded. From those bohemian beginnings, downtown has become a destination of choice for people with the means to live anywhere in town but are drawn to downtown’s combination of diverse amenities and unique properties like the luxury condos that grace the Lerner Lofts on Gay Street, Keystone Place in the old Knoxville Business College building, or the upscale apartments in the Emporium, Sterchi and Phoenix buildings—all of which have units on tour.
Other stops include the Cook Loft, tucked into the top floor of a Gay Street building. Still owned by descendents of the original builder, it’s a unique downtown B&B space that’s available for overnight and weekend stays. Family history also plays a role in 29 Market Square, above Bliss+Home. Originally built in 1920 and recently restored by the great grandson of the original owner, it’s a reminder that by resurrecting downtown Knoxville’s history, we’re also rediscovering our own.