Next Wednesday, the Downtown Design Review Board will be considering St. John’s Episcopal’s proposal to demolish two old brick buildings on Walnut Street, across from the library. They’re not architecturally ground-breaking buildings, or historically famous buildings, as far as I know.
The church is announcing no plans for the space, which wouldn’t seem to offer them much: it’s less than the area of a tennis court. At the initial hearing, last month, a church leader cited the expense of upkeep as a reason for tearing them down. If expense is a major issue, selling the buildings would seem a solution. There’s a demand. On the opposite side of the block, along Market, are maybe 20 comfortable residences, occupied mostly by professionals. For upscale residential development, there’s hardly any better location.
The other reason given for tearing them down is that they’re “ugly.”
Huh. I’ve been working downtown for 30 years, and have talked to a lot of people about a lot of buildings. Name any building in central Knoxville, and it’s even odds I can come up with a list of names of people who think it’s ugly. The ones people complain about most are those built in the last 40 years or so, downtown and especially on UT’s campus. Each Knoxvillian seems to walk around with a very subjective hit-list of ugly buildings. I don’t always agree with them, but through conversation I’ve become a connoisseur of architectural ugliness.
I’ve seen these buildings on Walnut almost daily for 30 years. They’re clearly visible from both main floors of the library. They’re on my way to the post office, on my way to the dentist, near my usual bus stop. Until last month, I’d never heard anyone of any denomination call them “ugly.”
According to St. John’s, these 90-year-old buildings, which have been there since the Warren G. Harding administration, are so urgently ugly that they must be gone. Their ugliness apparently didn’t discourage St. John’s from buying them, years ago. If they’re any uglier now, well, that’s something only the church can account for. Maybe it’s because parishioners see the buildings mainly from behind, from their parking lot. When it went in 15 years ago, St. John’s parking lot exposed parts of these buildings that were never meant to be seen in public; when they were built, the rear of the buildings were in an alley, butting up against a large mortuary. But even that’s pretty nice brick.
Since I wrote last, I’ve heard from dozens of readers, from veteran librarians who see the buildings through their plate-glass windows every day, to one Chicagoan in town for a game who got curious and made a point to have a look. So far, everybody thinks they’re pretty, and that it would be a shame to lose them.
I’m no arbiter of architectural esthetics, though, and on any subject, I’m always interested in alternative perspectives. Maybe the esthetic paradigm has shifted, they have indeed become ugly, and I need to get with the program. And maybe by this bold new paradigm, we have a lot more demolishing to do.
But when I look at them, I see fine old-fashioned brick buildings, wearing much better than most modern buildings do. The facades, especially on the two-story building at 712 Walnut, have some nice period design to them, stone and brick pattern work of a sort nobody much does anymore. And it’s not just the facade: Unlike a lot of old and new buildings, built to be seen from only one side, these two are solid brick all around, a rich, dark, textured brick. Have a look at most of the buildings on Market Square or in the Old City. I love Market Square and the Old City, but these buildings on Walnut are better constructed.
It shouldn’t be surprising; for most of their first several decades, they were physicians’ offices and middle-class town homes, in an upscale part of town. If someone were to build something crappy on this block of Walnut in 1921, it would be hard to explain. Walnut was, a century ago, a proud street of townhouse-style residences and stony apartment buildings, most of them two or three stories tall, like these. That appealing human scale was part of what made it a flattering image of Knoxville, in photographs. National companies sold tinted postcard images of Knoxville’s Walnut Street. It looked idyllic, and in those pictures, still does. There are still some streets like that in the expensive parts of Washington, or maybe Greenwich Village. There’s no longer a street like that in Tennessee. We tore Walnut’s townhouses down and replaced them, in several cases, with parking lots.
These two buildings weren’t the finest or grandest buildings on Walnut during its residential era, but they’re the only two that remain.
Ugliness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, of course. There are a lot of buildings I think are ugly, too. But I’ve never seen a building uglier than a surface parking lot. For over 50 years, students of urban planning have pointed to evidence that surface parking lots can cripple urban growth; they’ve been called the mange of downtown development. Around the corner, the UT design studio’s project for the semester is to solve the problem of downtown Knoxville’s excess of blank, dysfunctional parking lots, and how to fill that space with something more respectful of the city: generally mixed-use buildings that include parking garages.
Please have a look for yourself. Granted, their trim is overdue for a coat of paint. The shutters on the taller building look awkward and might be best removed. To me, the buildings could be a colorful illustration for a children’s story about life in the city.
There are so very, very few of these older urban buildings in Knoxville, and there’s a generally high demand for them on the market. How they wind up in the hands of people who don’t like them is sometimes hard to explain.