Just before noon Tuesday, in a parking lot off West Vine, with a view of the remains of the McClung Warehouses in the background, Knox Heritage Director Kim Trent spoke to TV cameras about the release of an unenviable list called the Fragile 15. She said it was an appropriate spot to prove the urgency of the list, to show what happens when historic buildings aren't renovated. The McClung Warehouses, which headed Knox Heritage's list of neglected and endangered places last year, went up in flames in February. Three of the five warehouse buildings, including the oldest of them, were completely destroyed. Other properties in the neighborhood were heavily damaged, and a Knoxville fire truck was destroyed in a wall collapse. Several firemen were injured.
â“The fire illustrated the worst-case scenario for vacant and blighted historic buildings,â” goes Knox Heritage's official statement, released Tuesday. â“We lost three buildings significant to understanding Knoxville's important late 19th-century role as a wholesale center. We lost the opportunity to redevelop the buildings into loft and retail space, thus improving the tax base for all Knox County residents. We very nearly lost other historic buildings as the result of embers raining down upon buildings across downtown Knoxville. This must be the last â‘great downtown fire' of this generation.â”
Fire didn't remove the onus. The two buildings that remain, including the original Crane building, are listed at #1. The two remaining buildings have been assessed as sound and suitable for development; though loud sounds of some sort of work could be heard emanating from the building during the presentation, owner Mark Saroff has announced no specific plans for the buildings.
Every year, the preservationist group's 30-member board of directors votes on the area's most neglected and endangered properties, in an attempt to prod their owners to appropriate action. This year's list includes a few surprises. For the first time, it includes a whole geographical areaâ"the French Broad River Corridor, home to several of Knox County's oldest historic sites, including houses and graveyards, but KH says it's threatened by a county-approved industrial and commercial project at the Midway Road exit of I-40 as well as by encroaching development from booming Sevier County.
Last year, KH nominated mid-century modern commercial buildings; this year, they got specific with a surprising entry at #3: the UT Conference Center between Henley and Locust. Built as a Rich's Department Store in 1954, it once earned a design award from the American Institute of Architects. The listing cites the building's â“structural glazed tile, polychrome glazed brick, glass enclosed corner towers and undulating concrete canopiesâ.â” Such features â“reflect the cutting edge of architectural thinking of the mid-20th centuryâ.â”
Also on the list are â“vacant historic Knox County school buildings,â” including South High, Brownlow Elementary, and Oakwood Elementary. The first two are slated for renovation projects that some neighbors find frustratingly slow in commencing; Oakwood is owned by the school system but, according to KH, underused and neglected. Some Market Square buildings on last year's list have been removed, but not 26 Market Square, the former Mavis Shoes. â“It's an eyesore,â” says Trent, â“the exception to the rule of the square being redeveloped.â” She says the roof is caving in and the building presents the risk of another â“great downtown fire.â”
The Walker-Sherrill House at 9320 Kingston Pike is a new entry, a little-known 1830 house, not easily visible from the pike, a Federal-style house of handmade brick, with rare hand-carved woodwork. KH calls it an â“architectural treasure,â” but it's now apparently vacant, and family members who have inherited it, several of whom live out of state, have not decided what to do with it. KH hopes to work with City Councilman Barbara Pelot to obtain protective H-1 overlay status for the house.
A comparable building is the Williams-Richards House at 2225 Riverside Drive, an 1842 house built by the famous Williams family of which playwright Tennessee Williams was one descendent. The house itself was once so famous it was featured in Knoxville postcards. It's unusual in this list because it's believed to be still occupied by its longtime owners, but preservationists are concerned that the house is â“deteriorating rapidly,â” literally coming apart.
Another house owned by a Williams descendent is the older Col. John Williams house at nearby 2333 Dandridge Ave. Once the home of a U.S. senator and diplomat, it's long been vacant, its interior mostly gone. Its Nashville-resident owner announced plans to restore more than a decade ago, but so far has done no obvious work.
The house is not only a lost opportunity, according to KH, but â“a negative influence on the surrounding neighborhoodâ. If the owner is unable to tackle the project, we hope a new owner will be identified in order to preserve the family's legacy as embodied in this structure.â”
Many families are reluctant to dispose of property that has been in the family for generations, Trent says. But such indecision often expresses itself as inaction, and owners are sometimes oblivious to the consequences. â“Their family legacy is falling down around their ears.â”
One old family house that's a new listing is Edelmar, on Topside Road, the 1914 former home of furniture tycoon and theater developer C.B. Atkin, which sits on a 30-acre estate overlooking Little River. The MPC has already recommended a historic-zoning designation for it.
Fort Higley, the ruined Union earthworks on the heights overlooking the south side of the river near downtown, is on the list again, as is the whole of financially troubled Knoxville College. Minvilla, the original name of the 1913 building once better known as Fifth Ave. Motel, at the corner of Broadway, is slated to be renovated as part of a city/Volunteer Ministry effort to provide housing for the needy. The plan is to restore some of its original character as 13 adjacent rowhouses. Demolition work on the building's motel faÃ§ade began after it earned a #9 listing on the Fragile 15.
The Cal Johnson Building, a perennial listee, is a three-story brick 1898 industrial building at 322 State which has a distinction shared perhaps by few other historic buildings of its size in the entire South; it was built by a man who was raised to be a slave. Millionaire Johnson, who lived nearby, had it built as a clothing factory. Trent says it has potential to appeal to African-American heritage tourism. Still standing, but with broken windows, it's been little-used as a warehouse by a nearby business.
Down the street, the Glencoe and the Elliott, two adjacent early-20th-century apartment buildings at State and Church, were condemned by the city for fire-code violations more than a year ago, and have sat empty since then. KH is more hopeful about them, in light of recent reports that a new owner means to fix them up.
One surprise, albeit low on the list, is the J.C. Penney Building on Gay Street. Covered since last year with a giant banner advertisement for the building as a trendy condominium and in the hands of a group of developers led by well-known preservationist architect Buzz Goss, it's certainly not the victim of neglect it once was. But there's considerable anxiety among preservationists about what efforts Goss and Co. will make to preserve its â“spectacular original faÃ§ade.â” When a modernist front was knocked away a couple of years ago, it revealed the building's original 1897 brick face: heavily damaged by modernization, its windows bricked in, but still an image worthy of its elaborately historical block.
The good news is the buildings that were removed from the list for reasons other than demolition. This year, the heroic exception is the Mary Boyce Temple house at Hill and Henley, once believed doomed by one adjacent developer or another, but now being vigorously renovated by architect Brian Pittman who means to live there someday.
â" Jack Neely
Last week, you may have overheard a couple of Englishmen who were hanging around Market Square, dropping in places like Tomato Head and Preservation Pub and talking about literature. The tall one was Alan Hall. If you have an extraordinarily good memory, you might remember him as one of the blokes who was here in 1995, producing an impressionistic documentary about Knoxville broadcast by the BBC in conjunction with a London Philharmonic performance of Samuel Barber's â“Knoxville: Summer of 1915.â” The piece won a major global broadcasting award.
Hall hadn't been back to Knoxville since then. Now in charge of his own production company, Falling Tree, he's at work on a longer and more generally biographical piece about Knoxville-born writer James Agee.
With Hall this time was Blake Morrison, a well-known English poet, journalist, novelist, and memoirist, whose book, And When Did You Last See Your Father , is soon to be a major motion picture. (Literary heartthrob Colin Firth is playing the author.) Morrison, whose career resembles Agee's in several respects, will be writing and narrating the 45-minute documentary, which will air in September. Whether â“James Agee: An American Legendâ” will be broadcast in America is uncertain.
Hall and Morrison spent last Thursday interviewing local Ageephiles, including UT scholar Hugh Davis, musician/poet R.B. Morris and Knox County historian Steve Cotham. Then, after a supper of shish kebab at Mirage, they went to the Brazilian Girls show at Sundown on Market Square, and seemed a little nonplused by both the sexually provocative performance and the crush of the crowd.
â“And here we thought we were coming to the small town of Knoxville,â” Morrison remarked. He also heard the Brazilian Girls' singer reference former Market Square developer Scott West, now serving a four-year sentence for drug trafficking, and the subsequent cheer of the crowd. â“He's sort of a folk hero, I take it,â” Morrison said.
To Hall, the biggest change in the city has been its awareness of Agee. When he visited in 1995, few Knoxvillians had heard of the author, and fewer still had read his work. â“Our key impression is how acknowledged and celebrated he is by his hometown,â” he says, mentioning that there's now a street and a park in Agee's honor, as well as vigorous scholarship at UT by Davis and Professor Michael Lofaro.
Coincidentally, Metro Pulse also had a rare cover story about Agee (our second ever, we estimate) come out during the two days they were here. And UT Press published a new photo-illustrated book of essays about Agee, Agee Agonistes , based on papers presented in a 2005 conference here, the same week.
For the last 12 years, Hall has been amusing Londoners with tales of how, in Knoxville, a man in his 30s has to show documentation to prove he's beer legal.
Now a 44-year-old father of threeâ"in his term, â“a patently middle-aged manâ”â"Hall has more stories to tell. The brewpub on Gay Street had been a favorite haunt for the BBC crew in 1995; but this time, a bartender at the same place, now the Downtown Grill and Brewery refused Hall's British driver's license, and he had to walk back to the hotel room for his passport. Their American trip took him to New York, rural Alabama, and Cleveland, Ohio; he bought beer in all those places, but says only Knoxville bartenders ever asked him to show his ID. (Morrison, a gray-haired scholarly-looking gent in his mid-50s, had his ID checked here, too, apparently a novel experience for him.)
If Hall had other complaints about his 48 hours in Knoxville, he kept them to himself. â“My quarrel is with the blanket imposition of the ID check,â” he says. â“It is self-evidently silly. What does the law fear? To deter under-age drinkers, the law seems to have created a range of offenses and grievances among an unrelated demographic!â”
Hall doesn't hold it against Knoxville, though. He dropped in Yee-Haw before he left and bought a â“Knoxville Girlâ” T-shirt for his daughter.
â" Jack Neely
Last Tuesday at noon, more than 50 individuals gathered on the corner of Cumberland and Locust to embark on a silent procession across downtown. Dressed in the color of mourning, they carried flowers and signs and draped children's shoes around their necks in memory of young people slain over the past year as a result of the Israel-Palestine conflict. When the group reached Market Square, a scroll was unrolled with 158 children's names, ages and details about their deaths. The ceremony ended with the song, â“We shall overcome.â”
It was a somber means of celebrating the Knoxville chapter of Women in Black's fifth anniversary, but it was effectiveâ"and honest. Living in 21st century America, it's easy to put on blinders to atrocities occurring in remote regions of the world, but it is Women in Black's philosophy to do just the opposite.
Renee Jubran, an original member of the Knoxville chapter, says the impetus to draw attention to Israel's occupation of Palestine and its dire consequences was born in the wake of the genocide that was taking place in Jenin, Palestine during the spring of 2002. â“It was Easter Sunday,â” she says. â“We had two very Jewish girls who asked, what are we doing enjoying dinner when people are being killed in Palestine and Israel? How can we be happy and wear spring, Easter colors when people are dying?â”
So they went to church in mourning clothes and began hosting a weekly vigil at the intersection of Cumberland Avenue and Locust Street, in front of the John Duncan Federal Building, come rain or snow or 90-degree heat.
In other countries throughout the world, other Women in Black groups do the same, inspired by the original small group of Jewish women who took a stand against the Israeli government's occupation of Palestine by holding a silent vigil at a busy intersection in Jerusalem 16 years ago.
At last Tuesday's anniversary, the group read aloud messages of gratitude sent to the Knoxville chapter from Women in Black chapters as far away as Australia, Serbia and Jerusalem. Messages from chapters closer to home were also received: â“From the U.S., we heard from as close by as Maryville (where there is a vigil every Thursday at 5 p.m. in front of the Municipal Building on Broadway) and as far away as Olympia, Washington,â” says Women in Black representative Brenda Bell.
Local attorney Carol Nickle has been with Women in Black since its inception in 2002. She says she stands with them because, as an individual concerned with justice, she believes that Israel's occupation of Palestine is a violation of international law. â“But even more than that,â” she says, â“it's inhumane. Families are separated from one another and from the olive groves that are their livelihood.â”
Nickle notes that the women who gather here each week are of various ethnic and religious backgrounds, but they share a strong bond rooted in a desire for peace that transcends their differences.
Since there's no end to the Israel-Palestine conflict in sight, it's a bond they'll likely be relying upon for years to come. â“Sadly, yes,â” says Jubran. â“We laugh we'll be coming out here in our wheelchairs, until peace is achieved.â”
â" Leslie Wylie
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