Glenn Laiken is a friendly, outgoing guy, and speaks in the easy, relaxed tones psychotherapists try to adopt. With white hair and a slender build, he could pass for Bert Bacharach’s more laid-back brother.
He designs men’s clothing for a living. Understated today, he’s wearing jeans and a collared shirt, plain except for a couple of not-necessarily utilitarian buttons on the sleeve, and open-toed shoes.
He’s the latest to join the motley breed known as Downtown Developer, taking on one of downtown’s more daunting brick-and-mortar challenges. He means to redevelop the decaying old Gold Sun property at 37 Market Square, the northwest corner of the reviving district, into a new and completely different restaurant, with extensive outdoor seating. Early in the summer there was talk of demolishing the ca. 1870s brick building, the longest-tenured restaurant space in the city, and a place with a lively and diverse history. But Laiken’s been persuaded, with encouragement from engineers, to save the two-story brick front bay, including the facade, as he builds anew behind it. If all goes according to plan, Laiken will be the owner of the largest restaurant on Market Square.
Until one year ago, and for more than 60 years before that, Laiken was an Angeleno. Running a men’s clothing store called Alandale’s for 39 years, he emphasized new European designers, and spent a good deal of time in Paris and Tuscany, but he grew up in Los Angeles and had never lived anywhere else.
“People in L.A. just don’t go to the Southeast unless they’re history buffs,” he says. But that’s not what brought the Laikens. His route to Knoxville was unorthodox, but today he’s proud of the fact that he may be, already, responsible for Knoxville’s highest daily profile. Previously, if you saw the word Knoxville on the West Coast or in another country, it might be in a book by James Agee or Cormac McCarthy or, in some seasons, an NCAA sports story. Today, Knoxville’s greatest daily fame is more likely to be beneath the name Glenn Laiken. He’s the clothing designer for Dr. Phil, and gets a credit at the end of each show, with his adopted home: “Wardrobe by Glenn Laiken, Knoxville, Tennessee.”
Today, Laiken does his designing in a sunny basement room of a brick rancher in the older half of Westmoreland. Several charcoal-gray jackets are hanging in a row, marked with stitching. He’s proud of a thick-pile silk tie he’s been working on. “Each yarn is dyed before it’s woven,” he says. Not all designers are big sports fans, but on the walls are photographs, some of them autographed, of his heroes: Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose autographed image is framed in the hallway, was also a customer, presumably an especially challenging one. One of his regular clients is Lakers coach Phil Jackson, whom he describes as a good friend.
A year after they moved in, they’ve already completely remodeled the place, tearing out multiple interior walls to accommodate “our California lifestyle.” Out the front door on an August morning is nothing but shades of green. “We can’t believe this place,” says his wife, Sheila. “The crickets and cicadas and birds. I feel like I’m in heaven.” Knoxville’s so lush, she says, “It’s almost like Hawaii.”
A fashion designer working up a downtown restaurant may not be as bizarre as it sounds. Laiken floated a gourmet-burger restaurant in Encino in the 1980s, and for the last 10 years, he was involved in downtown development in Culver City, a Los Angeles show-business suburb of about 40,000, home of MGM and Sony. Laiken became vice chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, and president of the Downtown Business Association. The Laikens threw several fund-raisers to renovate an old theater there; now the Kirk Douglas Theatre, it’s named for the actor whose family donated a big chunk of the $12 million necessary for the project.
“Culver City is not so different from downtown Knoxville,” says Laiken. It went through a dull patch, but then, “We started getting these great specialty restaurants. It’s about the special passions of people who do things extremely well.”
Culver City was his baby for 10 years, but it sounds as if about the time he turned 60, he encountered a late mid-life crisis: “Three years ago, my wife and I, we started thinking should try different lifestyles.”
They grew weary of Los Angeles, “the honking horns, the rude, aggressive people,” the hectic pace “that went beyond what was comfortable for our own personal cadence.”
A friend preceded them to the Southeast and suggested the move. Considering a search for their ideal location, they settled on five necessary components: a good quality of life / cost of living ratio; four seasons, but with tolerable summers and winters; no natural disasters; good health care; and a low crime rate. Their friend Ciri (“she has a genius IQ”) fed it all into a computer. “Knoxville, Tennessee was one of the cities at the top of the list.” Sheila responded, “Oh, Glenn will never want to go to Knoxville, Tennessee.”
They tried a cabin near Tazewell, and were agog over a hilltop spot called Hickory Point, overlooking Norris Lake. “I’ve traveled quite a lot,” he says, “but it took my breath away.” They befriended a local, bought some property, and intend to build a modern house there someday—a glass one, perhaps with a heliport—but not just yet.
Touring Knoxville in late 2007, they dropped in at the visitors’ center, and on the way out, drove down Wall Avenue. “I saw Market Square and parked the car,” he says. “It had a personality. It was all individual merchants there.” He liked the human scale of the place, and the potential. He couches his impressions a little. To Knoxvillians, Market Square can look like a major success unimaginable five years ago. To Laiken, it seemed “underproductive,” with room to grow.
Walking around the Square, he kept seeing signs for Conversion Properties, and met broker Joe Petre at his Gay Street office. “I’m just going with a feeling,” he told Petre. He first considered the handsome three-story Ziegler Building. But Sheila likes corner buildings, and eyed the run-down building at 37. Laiken realized that everyone who comes to the Square from the parking garage walks by it.
A year ago Sept. 24—a date chosen to match his parents’ wedding anniversary—he bought 37 Market Square from the Peroulas family for $400,000. Some developers shook their heads, thought it too much for a building in such bad shape. It doesn’t seem to bother Laiken. “In Los Angeles, we couldn’t afford to do any of this,” he says. He seems to be enjoying putting together the team, a little intuitively. He mentions Brownlee Construction (“solid people, proven to be the real deal”), engineer Maurice Mallia, and real-estate agent Daniel Odle--who led Laiken to his architect, Odle’s father, Jim. The experience reminded him of his conversations with Phil Jackson about the Lakers.
One morning back in California, he says, “I woke up laughing, from my belly. I asked Sheila, ‘Are we nuts?’”
He moved here first, and reported back to his wife: “We did good, baby, we did good.”
The Laikens knew few of their neighbors in Los Angeles, but he speaks of Knoxville’s “instant friendships.” A chipped tooth led to a Bearden dentist recognizing his name from the Dr. Phil show, which led to an invitation to a catered dinner party on Cherokee Boulevard, with waiters bearing silver trays. “My wife and I have had more social life in the last six months than in the 20 years before that,” Laiken says. Upon hearing that their experience may not be typical for newcomers, the Laikens seem surprised.
Laiken may have survived a controversy: Early reports had him demolishing 37 Market Square outright. The building’s among the oldest on the Square, and would have been the first total demolition since the Square earned its historic designation. Its dignified front is not architecturally distinctive; its value comes in large part from its history as a restaurant, especially the long-lasting Gold Sun, a Greek-owned place popular in that spot since Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency.
The building is admittedly in poor shape—especially the long north wall. In a well-attended Historic Zoning Commission walk-through of the building’s second dicey second floor—upon climbing to the top of the stairs, building inspector Tom Reynolds warned those behind him not to follow—architect Jim Odle demonstrated the problem by brushing his hand against the mortar, which seems to be turning to sand. By the plan approved by the HZC two days later, most of that wall will be demolished, preserving mainly the front bay, facing the Square. The door will be recessed, as it appears to be in a 1960 photograph (oddly, no one could find an earlier picture of the building).
Laiken says the fate of the old Gold Sun is in other hands. “I’m not that powerful,” he says. It’s for City Council, the Historic Zoning Commission, Knox Heritage to decide its fate. He likes the idea of saving the front, as planned, and the vigorous restaurant heritage folds in well with his ideals for the place. Mallia has reported that it’s feasible. But he does still use the conditional “if we can’t....” He mentioned that prospect just last week before the HZC, when he proposed that, at worst, they’d build a replica—an idea quickly slapped down by the commission. By historic-zoning standards, faux-Victorian are less reputable than modernist ones.
Today, there are 10 full-service restaurants on Market Square, not counting bars and ice-cream places. Another, the Spanish-themed Sangria, is due to open in September. The arrival of the popular Steamboat Sandwiches will make it 12. Still more are opening, or have recently opened, nearby on Gay Street—especially the S&W, due to open in November, the only restaurant likely to compete with Laiken’s proposal in scale.
Laiken’s project will be a 4,500 square-foot restaurant with 200 seats inside, by far the largest in the neighborhood—plus 60-70 seats outside, on the sidewalk. (Sidewalk seating was rare in Knoxville before the 1990s, but Laiken says he grew up with it.)
“I don’t think you can have too many, if they’re good,” he says. He claims Americans spend 90 percent of their spare cash on eating out. “One thing I’ve noticed, the people of Knoxville love to go out and do things,” he says. “There need to be new places to go out and have fun.”
Though Knoxville sounds like Oz to them right now, it’s the city’s deficiencies—one, in particular—that encourage his faith in the project. He’s a polite and charitable fellow, and doesn’t say, as many newcomers before him have said, that Knoxville restaurants are, on the whole, bland. He does say that he’s heard of Knoxville’s reputation as a “testing market for chain operations,” which are likely to go with the lowest common denominator. He wants to try something different, a place with more ethnic flavors. “An extra spice, a pinch of this, a pound of that—passion that comes from an owner on the premises.”
He’s keeping his cards close to his vest about some particulars. Agent Daniel Odle of Sperry Van Ness is entertaining prospective tenants--they intend to charge $24 per square foot per year, or around $10,000 a month for the whole building. Laiken says he’s already talking to a major area restaurant operator, and may offer a bit of a hint of what he’d like to see when he talks about his time in Tuscany, “They have the best food in the world,” he says. “I don’t think there is a restaurant there that has a freezer.”
“I don’t want to be in the restaurant business,” he says. “But you can tell I’m a hands-on guy. What interests us is in doing simple things exceptionally well.”