by Jack Neely
Those who think we preservationists “just want to save everything” should take note of the work on the 500 block of Gay Street. As I write, a backhoe is biting into the back of the 67-year-old Walgreens building.
There are no picketers outside, no columns from me about saving it. Just across the gap is a two-story Victorian building that’s also doomed. Nobody has proposed converting either building into condos.
The Victorian building is maybe prettier than most buildings we build today but not that distinguished, either architecturally or historically, though I bet next year I’ll run across some evidence that Einstein met Picasso there and conspired to invent television, or that Anastasia Romanov worked there in the ’50s, the checkout clerk with the funny accent.
As for the Walgreens, some might think a Walgreens is a Walgreens, but this one was site of some desegregationist sit-ins in the dramatic summer of 1960, and if we’re to judge by the book about them, Diary of a Sit In , by Merrill Proudfoot, it was until last week probably our best intact site associated with that gutsy and effective action.
In some cities, such sites are preserved, as places kids can come look at and imagine what kind of nerve it would take to be the first black person to sit down at the white folks’ counter. But the era’s surviving civil-rights leaders say the building didn’t mean much to them.
It was also an unusually literary Walgreens. In Cormac McCarthy’s landmark novel, Suttree , the title character takes his good friend, the multiply challenged Harrogate, there for Thanksgiving dinner.
I never had Thanksgiving dinner there, but in the 1980s, sitting alone at the counter of what was then Todd & Armistead and/or Gus’s, I consumed at least 200 nutritious breakfasts served up by the nonpareil Phyllis, she of the indomitably vertical hairdo.
The building never looked like much, though, and the fact that this 1938 Walgreens was better-looking than any Walgreens built in Knoxville in the last 40 years probably wasn’t enough to save it.
There are regrets about losing both buildings. But even preservationists are willing to step aside for a worthy project, that of bringing movies back to Gay Street—and of introducing a modern multi-screen cinema to central Knoxville for the first time ever. Of all the big projects proposed for downtown Knoxville in the last decade, the idea of a cineplex is the sanest. One detail I assume cinema planners over the years never quite grasped is that central Knoxville includes one of the largest universities east of the Mississippi. UT may be the only university of its size in America that has never had a cineplex within five miles of it. Go figure.
In my story that traced naturalist John Muir’s 1867 stroll from Indiana to Florida via Jamestown, Tenn., I may have oversimplified things concerning the zygotic origins of author Samuel Clemens.
The town now makes much of its seminal link to Mark Twain, the author born Samuel Clemens very soon after his parents had spent about a decade living here in Fentress County, whose county seat, Jamestown, is about 50 miles northwest of Knoxville.
Clemens’ parents did live in downtown Jamestown before Twain’s birth, but according to Allison Ensor, a Twain scholar, the Clemenses had left Jamestown proper before the actual impregnation process, which perhaps transpired in a cabin in the countryside north of town, closer to Pall Mall, which would later be famous as the home of one Sergeant York. That’s apparently the cabin that was recently moved to the Museum of Appalachia in Norris.
The connection probably didn’t matter much to John Muir. The September of 1867 that Muir walked through Fentress County, Mark Twain was just a young journalist out west, little known except for a story about a famous jumping frog.
My old friend Renee Jubran, who emphatically still runs the Falafel Hut on the corner of Clinch and James Agee, called with a request that I let readers know our favorite Middle-Eastern restaurant is still open. A few months ago, I wrote a column about the place being for sale, which some apparently took as a eulogy. Renee says people have been calling assuming they’re closed, or that they’re closing earlier than they used to. But they’re open every day except Sunday until 9 p.m ., which in my experience is a fun time to be tarrying there, in the heart of Fort Sanders. It’s still for sale, but it’s still open.
I’m happy to report that the misleading signs at the intersection of Henley and Main—including the one indicating that there were “downtown historic sites” and “public parking” over toward the Henley bridge—have vanished.
A few puzzlements remain. Down Henley, a big brown sign suggests we turn east on Church to get to “Old North Knoxville Historic District.” Getting there by turning right on Church is theoretically possible but pretty silly. If you just stay on Henley, Old North is straight ahead, hardly a mile. Those who follow the sign’s recommendations down Church Street will find no further signs to correct their course, and end up in a non-historic district of East Knoxville.
I’m convinced all these nonsensical signs were installed some moonless midnight by wily gnomes seeking revenge on Knoxville for some gnomish insult.
On the subject of misleading historical markers, developer Mark Heinz notes the Indian mound on Cherokee Boulevard has two signs on either side, with conflicting information. One, placed by the Sequoyah Hills Preservation Society, calls it a “burial mound” and dates it to 900-1100 A.D. The other, placed by the Daughters of the American Colonists, calls it a base for a structure overlooking a village plaza, and dates it to 1300-1500.
I wrote about that discrepancy in a column maybe five years ago, assuming one of them would eventually give in to the other’s scholarship. But they’re both standing resolute and unyielding in their opposing opinions, their backs to each other.
Maybe we should host an Indian Mound debate, get the Daughters and the Historical Society to bring out their champions, and best evidence, and let the people decide.
Or maybe we should take both of them down, and just put up a big iron plaque that says “INDIAN MOUND. FOLKS THINK IT’S PRETTY OLD.”