Some Architectural Paradoxes for Your Pondering Pleasure

Friends noticed it before I did, a mystery on the old marble-fronted building at Gay Street and Summit Hill. Known in the condo era as the Crimson Building, it has scaffolding on the front, now in the latter stages of a major makeover. About a month ago, workers revealed something of an old marble engraving just above the street level.

For a couple of weeks, you could read the letters UNION ATIO, or something like that. One passerby wondered whether maybe there was a union office there at one time. I tried to figure some way it might have had something to do with the Union Terminal: The fact that that busy inter-city bus station had been just a few doors away seemed too much for coincidence.

But I looked it up, and all our speculations vaporized. Until about 80 years ago, that building housed the Union National Bank. That institution was located on that block beginning around 1911, apparently consolidated two old brick buildings behind a single marble front during its ca. 1920 flush years, and went out of business, as many banks did, during the Depression. The building was still known as the Union National building until around 1937, when it became better known as the Knoxville Journal building. There aren’t many folks around who remember when the morning paper was headquartered in that building, and fewer still who remember when it was Union National.

It’s all covered up again, to puzzle future generations.

Barely around the corner, at the north end of Market Square, is a philosophical conundrum. If you’ve never had a close look at an actual conundrum, I recommend this one. Not all conundrums are quite this graphic, nor do they offer beer, table service, and outdoor seating nearby. This conundrum looks like a dual sculpture with an obscure point, as if illustrating one of Plato’s lesser-known allegories or maybe a Zen koan.

On the west side, the 140-year-old facade of the Gold Sun building stands alone, bereft of any building behind, like a ruin—if not a Greek ruin. Though it was a Greek restaurant.

On the east side, facing it directly, is the four-story, 115-year-old Woods & Taylor building, which is intact except for its facade, recently removed because it was a falling hazard. In one building, the facade was the only sturdy part, and stayed. In the other, the facade was the only hazardously weak part, and left.

The buildings as they stand today are opposites. The two-story Gold Sun’s front is one of the oldest facades on the Square, and all that remains of one of Knoxville’s favorite restaurants, once a downtown home to all sorts of people from Arab immigrants to struggling country musicians to Republicans, and the obligatory place to visit if you had just an afternoon in 20th-century Knoxville. I’m glad they saved enough of it to point to. As long as it’s still there, we can at least talk about all the characters, famous and infamous, who walked through that door.

But which is the real building? Many note that the Gold Sun’s front looks so insubstantial it could hardly even be considered a historic building. Then again, though, if you were to take a photo of the Gold Sun in its heyday, say, 1920, what you’d see is mostly what’s here now, that same arrangement of bricks. What’s there is the part of the building that greeted the world.

Across the way, by contrast, the four-story Woods & Taylor building has guts, but only guts. It has no face. But more than 90 percent of the building is intact, including all the floors your great grandmother may have walked on when it was a department store.

They’re both being rebuilt, and a year from now may just be old-looking buildings, different but not categorically distinguishable from everything else on this historic block. But for now, the spectacle prompts cafe conversation at Pres Pub and La Costa and Cocoa Moon.

Which one is the real building? If one is authentic, does it mean the other’s not? And what, by the way, is the sound of one hand clapping?

Another identity dilemma lurks on the other end of the Square. When the building at the southwestern corner went up for sale a couple of weeks ago, it was announced in the TV news as the “Hotel St. Oliver Building.” For the last 15 years or so, about three quarters of it has hosted that charming hostelry. The St. Oliver is Patricia Neal’s favorite place to stay in Knoxville, and when the blokes from the BBC visit, they always want to stay there. Eccentric and obscure, St. Oliver is a great name for a hotel. But it’s a new name for a very old building.

The three-story brick building on the corner has gone by a lot of names over the years: the Blakley House, the Mall Building, Oddfellows Hall. But it’s known to historians as the Peter Kern building, and it’s the building most emblematic of life in Knoxville during the city’s post-Civil War boom years. When German immigrant Kern led the construction of the place in 1876, it was one of the first projects of Joseph Baumann, arguably Knoxville’s first professional architect, and was almost instantly a Knoxville landmark: It housed, at once, a soda fountain, a confectionery, a toy-and-fireworks emporium, an ice-cream saloon, meeting halls for fraternal organizations like the Oddfellows, ballrooms for dancing and musical performance, and for a while a studio for one of Knoxville’s first professional artists. All that time it was also Kern’s Bakery and candy factory, which was in the back.

And all that, just during the lifetime of Peter Kern, who died in 1907. Kern is one of those figures every Knoxvillian should know about, overripe for statuary: Among other distinctions, he was our last mayor with a European accent. In lieu of a statue, let’s at least keep his name with his favorite building.

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