Of Skeet Tallent, a Gold Sun Revelation, and UT Conference Center’s Tenuous Facelift

I’m getting more memories of photographer/bandleader/embalmer Skeet Tallent. He died more than 40 years ago, but dozens of Knoxvillians remember him well. He’s probably not the solution to the original mystery—no one has any evidence, or inclination to believe, that he had anything to do with the ca. 1930 nude photographs marked “Talent Studio”—but I’ve been grateful to hear about Mr. Tallent, who’s probably someone I should already have written about.

Some have taken me to task for not already knowing all about him. And it turns out maybe I should have. He took the photos at my parents’ wedding in 1956.

Kathy Changas, who knew him in the 1960s, recalls that his studio was exactly where the Sunspot restaurant is today. “Mr. Skeet Tallent had a large personality packed into a diminutive frame. I remember his beak-like nose and balding head and his magic ways of manipulating his subjects into the desired poses. He really did have a ‘watch the birdie’ bird mounted on his big-box tripod camera, and with dramatic flourish he would flip the dark cloth over his head, and the skirmish would begin.”

Candance Reeves says, “He and my mother were great friends. He also inspired my father to open his restaurant in Fountain City. Most of my childhood photos were done by Skeet. He had a wonderful way of putting children at ease by doing magic tricks while photographing them. He would put a ping-pong ball in his mouth and make it disappear or bring it out of the child’s ear. I was thrilled to go visit him and have some really endearing photos because of it. I even have some holding the ping pong ball.”

***

Work on the old Gold Sun corner at 37 Market Square disclosed a surprise on the front wall. Noted fashion designer Glenn Laiken, who has already rebuilt most of this sagging 19th-century building, saving only the facade, is transforming the landmark into a two-story restaurant.

Some thought it strange to save the facade, but that particular stack of bricks has stories to tell. After some removals of layers of paint, above the door, a phrase emerged in 8-inch block letters: “FOR LADIES & GENTLEMEN.” It seems an odd slogan for a place that was a restaurant since about 1909. The Gold Sun—another phrase disclosed much higher on the facade—was a 24-hour place run by Greek immigrants and known for its eclectic clientele and fare unlimited by the printed menu. It was one of the best-known restaurants in mid-20th-century Knoxville.

But in its earliest days, restaurants were still a novelty. Eating was intimate, associated mainly with family. The notion of eating with strangers was associated mainly with boarding houses and saloons. And most saloons were only for men.

With the saloon era a recent memory, maybe it wasn’t obvious that a restaurant might allow both ladies and gentlemen alike. This sign offered women encouragement that it was okay to come on in.

***

Down on Henley Street is a less charming revelation. The University of Tennessee is removing the shiny blue ceramic tiles from its unusual Conference Center building. Beneath, it’s a little startling to see, is ordinary cinderblock.

Much-admired as a rare example of modernism when it was designed, originally to serve as a Rich’s department store, it was downtown’s answer to modern suburban retail. As shopping in the sooty, creaky old Victorian buildings of downtown began to seem less fashionable, Rich’s architects tried to adapt downtown to the sleek, clean, postwar world. “You’ll never believe you’re downtown,” they said.

The Atlanta firm of Stevens & Wilkinson enlisted internationally well-known designers Garrett Eckbo and Raymond Loewy—the French-born maverick who had designed automobiles and locomotives and eventually worked with NASA on spacecraft design—and it won a 1957 award from the American Institute of Architects. Lit up at night, Rich’s became an oblong rectangle of modernism aglow in gloomy downtown Knoxville.

In some ways, of course, the new Rich’s wasn’t so modern. It had a lunch counter, and for the building’s first half-decade, the lunch counter was racially segregated. In black-and-white photos of the sit-ins of 1960, it’s startling to see this fresh modern building in the background, this striking modernist megalith representing the stubborn old ways.

Like most downtown lunch counters, Rich’s gave in without much of a fight. But that era gives it a bit of history not shared by all modernist buildings.

Miller’s took over soon after that, and for more than a decade, there were two big Miller’s department stores downtown, both multi-story places with escalators, one Edwardian, one postwar modern. The building served as a department store for more than 30 years, ending its life as a Hess’s. UT purchased the building, reamed out the interior, and repurposed it in the 1990s as UT’s first permanent beachhead downtown. They call it a Conference Center. They do have some conferences there—I’ve attended a couple—but it’s mainly an office building. One of the exterior display windows has been in use to display the wares of UT Press, which has its main offices in the building, and there’s a little “bookstore,” which by collegiate definitions often means “convenience store,” adjacent.

Local preservationists have complained for years that UT hasn’t been taking good care of the exterior blue tiles. Now they’re just taking them off.

What sort of exterior they’ll put up depends on how much money they can raise. They’ve said they’re not likely to put back these particular ones.

We take the place for granted, but I’ve been with visiting architects from out of town who seemed momentarily awestruck by the place.

I wish I could be confident that UT would see any motive to fix it up. Henley Street, as it is, is not a street that lends itself to looking at buildings. Most of Henley Street’s faces are bland beige concrete and stucco. If UT does something architecturally worthy of this building, I’ll be surprised, and will confess the error of my assumptions in this space.

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Comments » 3

KnoxvilleUrbanGuy writes:

I'm looking forward to the opening of 37 Market Square. The construction seems to have slowed to a crawl. I was one of the people who wondered if it was worth keeping the facade, now I hope they will leave the words on the facade so they can be seen. Across the square, I've just realized that we will lose our one public graffiti wall when the building on the opposite corner is finished. I hate to see that. I've blogged on these things and on daily life and oddities downtown. If you are interested in reading about this sort of thing, you might go to http://www.stuckinsideofknoxville.blo...

Swanky writes:

http://www.swankpad.org/places/knoxvi...

Rich's image and images of the building, as it was...

TomB writes:

I remember shopping at Miller's on Henley as a UT student back in the early 1980s. Didn't it have a sculpture of a globe on the east side with a small reflecting pond?

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