Even some of my diehard preservationist chums cheered the quiet demolition on Summer Place earlier this month. They didn’t look much like historic buildings to begin with, the facades covered with that spray-on pebblement that makes you think of faux-rustic public-park bathrooms in the ’60s. They’d been too compromised to get to first base on historic-register status. Besides, the roof was caving in, which prompted the city’s public-services boards to have a hard look at it over the summer and declare it dangerous and unfit for human et cetera.
NHS Development, which owns the property, intends to build, for now at least, a surface parking lot on the site. Downtown needs another surface parking lot like it needs another panhandler, but I haven’t even heard complaints about that, either.
Summer Place is a street so short and so obscure many downtown regulars ask where it is. Most who recognize it know it only as a shortcut between Walnut and Locust, down below the Market Square garage. The buildings still standing on it are uniformly blande moderne in style: a lesser TVA office building, the back of Kimberly Clark, and a big dull office edifice, also a TVA remnant, called the Liberty Building. It appears to have been vacant for some time. You can climb in its window if you want to, but there’s not much point.
The buildings torn down didn’t look like much, either. But when the light was right, on the Locust Street side, you could make out three floors of bricked-in windows, fossils of tall windows of a style architects have rarely employed since about a week after the Coolidge administration.
I’d always assumed the name Summer Place was a modern conceit, named by some fan of the Sandra Dee movie or the Percy Faith theme, which I admit I couldn’t get out of my head in the library, and can’t now. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you probably can’t, either, and I’m sorry for that.
In fact, the street name is a century older than the movie. If you want to drive yourself around the bend, go to the library and see if you can research the one-block long street called Summer Place. There are a couple of sleight-of-hand tricks involved, and maybe some theoretical physics, too. Space seems to expand and contract. Until the mid-20th century, there was another street two blocks, or one block, or a half block to the north, called Summer Place. The name’s of mid-19th-century origin and obscure. Maybe some prominent citizen kept a “summer place” over here, on what was then the outskirts of town. Maybe not. But the name seemed to migrate south, until it arrived here, sometime around 1980, as the new name of this street.
Maybe harder for the earnest researcher to accept is that back then, what we now call Summer Place was the easternmost block of Western Avenue. And before that, it was part of twisty old Asylum Street. It’s all pretty baffling, and here’s a further confusion. Before a circa 1980 redesign, City Hall had a much-larger grounds called City Hall Park; its acute southern corner stretched across what’s now the fire-station parking lot, all the way to the intersection of Locust and this demolition site. I should remember that, but I don’t.
It was once a significant block. Single-family residential for most of the 19th century, by 1910 this 500 block of Western was turning sharply commercial, supporting several boarding houses. Soon there were prominent businesses, a restaurant, confectioners, cobblers, physicians, apartment buildings, plus a hotel called the DeSoto.
Before 1929, Knoxvillians had known Sears, Roebuck mainly as a mail-order catalogue, but when that giant corporation opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Knoxville, it was on this little block. Sears stayed here for only a few years before they moved to Gay Street, and later still to North Central to become, in 1946, Knoxville’s first big suburban store. But during the Depression, Sears was down here, in this modest low-lying holler of downtown. The original Sears building is long gone.
It’s hard to know, but easy to guess, that the buildings just torn down were built in the 1920s. Number 524 Western, the first to go, was home to Bean, Warters & Co., printers, one of Knoxville’s best-known printing companies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the time they moved here, they’d already seen their glory days, as publishers of The White Caps, the popular history of that weird period of vigilante justice in Sevier County, but aging co-founder Jim Warters was still in charge of a company known as a capable printing shop, publisher or promotional or genealogical or historical booklets.
Number 526, the second building torn down this month, was a drugstore, a music store, and a Depression-era cafe called Ogg’s. Proprietor Ed Ogg lived a couple blocks away. The two buildings seem to have been combined around 1940 as a big leatherworks called Bolton’s. It was there for a long time. Later, Keener, the family-owned lighting company, was there until it moved to its present location in the early ’70s. Then there were a couple of blood banks here, Medic and Plasma Alliance. If you had more blood than you needed, this is where you came.
Soon after that, the city was doing major surgery to the neighborhood, and it’s easy to lose your bearings. Summit Hill Drive took out several blocks of downtown, plus most of City Hall Park parts of Vine, Commerce, and a whole erratic grid of little lanes like Summer Place evaporated. This block with the demolition seems not to have been called Summer Place until the early 1980s, when it borrowed the name of a neighboring street that was no longer using it, being as it was no longer in business as a street.
So Summer Place is still there, just with fewer buildings on it now. If you want to write a hit song about it, it could use one.