A building of distinction revives on Gay Street
To the Max
by Matt Edens
Not every historic building in downtown Knoxville is a hundred-year-old pile of brick or stone. For most of its half-century or so, this building on Gay Street has been clad in some sort of metal skin. The first was put up almost 60 years ago, when the jeweler Max Friedman rebuilt the fire-gutted building on this site, a building that had likewise risen from the ashes of its predecessor, lost in the great “Million Dollar Fire” of 1897.
That original metal façade must have looked as sleek as a jet fighter when it was first put up back in 1946, so clean and modern compared to the grimy, frumpy and, at the time, out of fashion Victorian storefronts that lined Gay Street. And whether one liked it or not, it certainly caught the eye, thanks to a neon clock and Friedman’s name spelled out on a marquee that might have been more at home on a movie theater than a jewelry store.
Not that Friedman doesn’t deserve star billing on any list of who’s who in Knoxville circa 1946: the East European immigrant with a penchant for bow ties and wire rim glasses served nearly two decades on City Council, plus terms on the County Court, County Election Commission, and Knoxville Housing Authority. He was also plugged in on the national level, a committeeman for the state Democratic Party and a confidante of Estes Kefauver. Some sources even claim it was Friedman, during a 1932 meeting, who told the New York governor and presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt that “what the American people wanted was a New Deal.”
While the jewelry store Friedman founded is still around, the old Gay Street store closed years ago, its sheet metal façade dulled by the years. The building did get fixed up back in the mid-’90s: the façade was shined, the upstairs was converted into a large, luxury loft, and the CBID even kicked in some cash to get the old clock working again. But then the building was sold, and the new owners, for reasons I never quite fathomed, trashed the old façade. Perhaps they were looking for a lovely old storefront that changing fashions had covered up? What they found, instead, was a mish-mash of brick and cast concrete, a fire-proof substructure that was never intended to see the light of day. With one trip to the dump, one of Gay Street’s most distinctive buildings became one of its biggest eyesores.
But that’s all changed, thanks to a new owner and some able assistance from Sanders/Pace Architecture. The building has a new façade fashioned from zinc, similar in style and spirit to the former. And the old jewelry store space is once again available: two levels with front and rear access, exposed brick walls and concrete floors, 3,500 sq. ft. in all, ready to be refitted. There’s even a huge walk-in vault, whose cast iron Victorian trim testifies to the fact that it has survived a century in this spot, incorporated into the succession of buildings that have risen around it—including what was once, and once again is, one of the most distinctive buildings on Gay Street.
The Max Friedman Building