Turning Tables

Knoxville as exemplar, finally; and a particularly unusual reuse for an old school

Over the years here at Metro Pulse, we’ve written about what we can learn from Asheville, Chattanooga, and other reviving cities in the region, so much that municipal envy has almost become a literary genre.

It’s fun to be on the other end of the comparison, for once. “Metro Jacksonville,” a kind of newspaper-website (metrojacksonville.com) focused on urban issues in that sprawling Florida city, especially downtown development, has made a regular practice of running heavily illustrated municipal comparisons. A few weeks ago, it featured Knoxville.

“Metropolitan Knoxville is half the size of [metropolitan] Jacksonville, less dense, and has an image problem much larger than anything Jacksonville has had to deal with,” reports the opening, without need for elaboration. “However, it appears Knoxvillians have stumbled upon a successful strategy to bring vibrancy back to their city’s core.”

It’s odd that the photo they chose to represent Knoxville is of Rocky Top Books at 17th and Cumberland, a plain building unaffected by any of the redevelopment activity discussed in the article, which is entirely about downtown. About Market Square: “Imagine Hemming Plaza without vagrants, completely surrounded by restaurants and retail shops that are open at nights and on weekends. Then mix in regularly scheduled events such as rock concerts, Shakespearean plays, art shows and a farmer’s market.” About the Old City: “Due to low land values and lease rates, and its close proximity to the core, it has been reborn as a district filled with bars, restaurants, loft apartments and offices. Nevertheless, despite the revitalization, Old City still struggles with a noticeable presence of vagrants and panhandling.”

The unsigned article goes on to mention Volunteer Landing, and Gay Street: “the community has worked to restore its prominence as a theater district.”

Under the heading, “What can we take from Knoxville?” it summarizes: “What’s happening in Knoxville isn’t anything extreme. There’s no plan for anything like rail, 70-story skyscrapers, or an urban mall to come downtown. Although the University of Tennessee is a mile south of the central business district, the redevelopment of downtown has more to do with connectivity than college students. Looking from the outside, downtown’s major nodes all happen to be centered around some sort of anchor that brings a continuous flow of people into the immediate area...further enhancing that compact spot as the place to be.”

Concerning UT, the directions are a little off—campus is hardly a quarter mile from the CBID, and more west than south—but why quibble when, for once, folks are being nice.

“Furthermore, these images also show a downtown in a sprawling city that hasn’t seen the majority of its historic buildings ripped to shreds because of shortsightedness. The same style of buildings that have been labeled locally [in Jacksonville] as blight are major contributing factors to the city’s renaissance.”

One posted comment came from a former Knoxvillian: “We can honestly say that we had the same number of good restaurants, better public transit/bike lanes, and more to do in tiny Knoxville than we do [in Jacksonville]. Looking at the photos instantly made us miss a place we woefully under-appreciated when we lived there.”

Since my article about empty schools, I’ve been hearing about some others lately. There are quite a lot of former school buildings around town. But I kept hearing rumors about the re-use of a school I’d never heard of. It’s not mentioned in the usual texts, nor in an inventory of old school buildings the county came up with in the ’90s. I didn’t know anybody who remembered Mead School.

I decided to leave it out of the story, which pretty much guaranteed I’d hear about it soon. There’s no quicker way to learn elusive information about any subject than to neglect it in a story.

Mead School, a small school of under 8,000 square feet, was built on a hillside on Bafford Place in the Island Home area as a WPA project in 1936. A red-brick building of stout but simple style, it’s built into a hillside; it looks like a two-story building from the street, but the first floor is really the basement.

It’s near Mead’s Quarry, recently rehabilitated as a natural area, and we can assume it got its name from the family of William Spies Mead, the New York-born industrialist who was a major figure in the iron and marble businesses here in the late 19th century, and his son Frank, who concentrated more on the marble side of things, and died the year the school was built. Lore is that Mead School was built primarily to serve the children of quarrymen who lived in the area.

It closed just 23 years after opening, in 1959, and sat empty for a couple of decades before a family moved into it and began using it as a residence. It’s lately been the home of Knox County Greenways Coordinator Karen Bailey, who decided she really didn’t need a house quite this big.

We hear about schools being reused for interesting new purposes, but sometimes it all comes back around again. This past fall, longtime Montessori instructor Ruth Jones, also a former teacher in the Lenoir City school system, bought the building for use as a Montessori school. Though one room had been reconfigured for residential purposes, others still have chalkboards in them ready for reuse for the first time since the Eisenhower administration, and the auditorium and cafeteria are still intact. She’s conferring with the Metropolitan Planning Commission to rehabilitate the school appropriately. There are about half-a-dozen Montessori schools in Knoxville; this one will be the closest to downtown, at a distance of about two miles.

She’s getting the school licensed for 47 students, but wants to start out slow. If all goes well, Mead Montessori will be open this coming August, almost half a century after its last class.

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