The J.C. Penney building, by any other name, and the potential of a Creole future
by Jack Neely
Every year after the Vols have suffered their season’s first loss, a wistful melancholia sets in over the old city, and Knoxville can make you think of Paris after the Armistice. People shrug and slur, and let their cigarettes dangle from their lips. They wear muted clothing and have private conversations at cafe tables and question the meaning of life. We notice how the late-afternoon light falls on forgotten old buildings. Autumn begins.
One forgotten old building in particular has drawn a lot of attention this month.
I’m barely old enough to remember the days when all the grownups were raving about how clean and modern downtown was beginning to look, now that they were covering up all the unfashionable old Victorian buildings with glass and plastic and shiny new sheet metal.
It was the New Frontier, the jet age, and Knoxville wanted desperately to be hip. That dark cluttery Victorian jazz was for old ladies. We were cool, clean, modern, up-to-date. I think we all expected that Tony Curtis or Bobby Darin would cruise down Gay Street in a T-Bird convertible and then tell the world how groovy Knoxville looked now that we got rid of all that squaresville brickwork and old-timey windows. It would make up for all the insults Knoxville had endured for so many years.
So, at great expense we covered it all up with gleaming sheets of extruded material, we never were sure quite what, bricked in a lot of windows, replaced a lot of old-fashioned buildings with a lot of steaming modern surface parking lots. Somehow the reputation as a modern place still eluded us. It wasn’t long before the New Frontier coverings started showing, curling at the edges, cracking, showing the stains of old-fashioned exhaust soot and rust. By the ’70s, a few cynics were muttering that it looked better before.
Some of us had forgotten there was any brickwork in there to begin with. But one after another, the old buildings re-emerged like spirits.
One of the last holdouts was the J.C. Penney Building; covered for some decades by nondescript vanilla tiles, most of us had forgotten which one it was. I’d assumed the tiles were composed of some heavy plastic, but it turned out it was all Tennessee marble, each tile weighing 350 pounds, dozens of them. It was as high-toned as the faux-modernist makeovers got, but the weather had bleached the tiles into a bland styrofoam hue.
The building’s slow unveiling this summer was more exciting than many exotic dances. The tiles were difficult and expensive to remove, and as they dropped there emerged behind them the voluptuous lines of arched windows. They patterned two distinct brickwork facades that few remembered. All of the Victorian windows were long ago filled in with concrete blocks. Much of the elaborate cornicework is gone, chipped away apparently just so those tiles could lie flat. Unveiled, it looks like the two-dimensional fossil of a building.
Developer/architect Buzz Goss and his partners Cherie Goss and David Dewhirst intend to redevelop the building for residential use, perhaps adding three more floors to it.
As of this week, Goss admits he has no idea what to do with the facades. The amount of detail surprised him. He’d like to reopen the windows somehow, but knocking out the dumb cinderblock may be hazardous. He has to determine, first, if the old brick is still strong enough to bear the load. For now, the facade is just drawing stares.
Many details remain to be worked out. Goss wants to name the building for something besides the department store that abandoned it. Unlike most J.C. Penneys buildings today, Mr. J.C. Penney himself actually visited this one, which opened in 1935, more than once. But I can understand the desire to rename. These Victorian buildings predate the Penney’s era. They were probably built soon after the catastrophic fire of 1897, which destroyed this entire block. The two buildings that eventually became J.C. Penney’s were first combined by German immigrant Max Arnstein, around the turn of the century; but he already has a handsome building named for him.
I suggested the building might have some kind of baseball theme. The first baseball game in Knoxville, perhaps the first baseball game in Tennessee—was played in 1865 on this spot, on a field that lay down a steep ravine from the street. (For many years afterwards, before this side of the block was built up, it was called “the Old Base Ball Grounds.”) Maybe it was the first team sport of any sort here: that first baseball game was long before football and basketball. From the sound of it, these buildings covered third base and part of left field. Both of which have cultural connotations, but I’m not sure they’re marketable in selling condominiums.
In light of the proposed (by no one with the wherewithal to actually build it, so far) Knoxville Culinary Institute, I have to admit that during the first week after Katrina, I had an irreverent thought. There were until lately a lot of talented people in New Orleans, especially musicians and chefs. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if some of them find a reason to come here, and stay.
I didn’t say it out loud. It seemed too tactless to suggest. But then I heard that Boulder, Colo., was actively recruiting New Orleans musicians to move there. Boulder’s proposal made me think of the opportunistic cad swooping in on the beautiful widow in some old Russian novel. But then again, what if it works? What if, 20 years from now, there’s a form of jazz called Boulder Dixieland?
One reader suggested, in light of the culinary-institute proposal, that we recruit refugee chefs to open restaurants in Knoxville. It may be too much to hope for. But if we could persuade a few dozen New Orleans chefs to relocate in a hurricane-free zone, they could serve Creole dishes, inevitably combining them with local favorites.
But just imagine it. Mettwurst Etouffee. Krispy Kreme Brulee. Carp Rockefeller. Duck a la Big Orange. Knoxville’s inimitable country-music parodists Homer and Jethro did a memorable rendition of a Hank Williams song about a famous Cajun dish called “Jam-Bowl-Liar,” but didn’t include a recipe.
Sawmill gravy, one of the few recipes believed to have originated in this area, starts with an especially dissolute roux. It’s something to work with, anyway.