It sounds like things are stirring for the Arby’s Building, as it’s been known in the news. At the corner of Gay and Union, it’s a rarity: a historic building in the heart of downtown with nothing in it. Next to trendy Sapphire, which on weekend nights is often too crowded for dancing, across Union from the world headquarters of the H.T. Hackney Co., which also houses the University of Tennessee’s design studios and the expanded and revamped Market—and across Gay from the iconic Miller’s / KUB building—the old Arby’s corner seems curiously left out of the fun.
Naturally, people wonder about the anomaly. Right in the middle of all this activity, on a sidewalk often jammed in the evenings, an empty corner building. Arby’s has been closed for well over a year. Even when it was humming, the upstairs—the two floors that included Slomski the Tailor’s shop as recently as the 1980s—has been empty or underused for several decades. There’s still an unmet demand for downtown housing, and that’s likely to be relevant to the future of the Arby’s Building.
A reader called with a question about whether we should call it something other than “the Arby’s Building.” It wasn’t built for the purpose of selling roast-beef sandwiches.
To be fair, among fast-food-chain traditions, this Arby’s was venerable. When Arby’s closed at that location, in late 2010, it was one of the oldest restaurants downtown. If Regas hadn’t closed almost simultaneously, I was ready to hail Arby’s as downtown’s very oldest. Unlike a lot of older-looking restaurants, Arby’s had been there since the Ford administration. Back before there were luxury condos or glass skyscrapers downtown, before anybody had ever dared to put a cafe table on a downtown Knoxville sidewalk, there was that Arby’s. As Gay Street McDonald’s and Wendy’s came and went, Arby’s held fast. I can remember certain lonesome evenings after 5 when Arby’s was the life of the Gay Street party. That is, until they closed at 6. The whole neighborhood got pretty bleak after that. When I lived downtown in the ’80s, I had to keep that 6 o’clock deadline in the back of my mind. Too often, I arrived at 6:02, and cursed my fate. Though I like to support the local places, there have been many occasions that I’ve been grateful, when I just had just a couple of bucks in my pocket, or when I had less than 15 minutes to kill, to still be able to eat lunch, or a very early supper.
The building’s obviously several decades older than my fond Arby’s memories. It’s older than the whole Arby’s concept. The building, with its light-brick facing and square windows, looks 1920s in style. I’ve come to learn it’s much older than that.
Many folks middle age and beyond remember that before the building at Gay and Union was Arby’s, it was Spence Shoes. In fact it was a shoe store, on the ground floor, for more than 40 years, with a tailor, Dale Slomski, and before him, Mr. Szabo, on the second floor. Sometimes there was even a restaurant in the basement, accessed via Union Avenue.
But even that’s not what it was originally built for. I’d never have guessed it before I set out to research this column, but the Arby’s Building is probably among the oldest buildings on Gay Street. Its size should have been a clue. It’s just three stories tall, from the Gay Street elevation, on a block of five and six-story buildings. When the building was originally built, Gay Street wasn’t so concerned with altitude. Knoxville was a city of fewer than 10,000, and didn’t have many buildings taller.
Its original occupant was the firm who built it: the prominent wholesale pharmacy known as Sanford, Chamberlain, and Albers, a partnership of Union veterans. And when they built this building, the war was a fairly recent memory. Among them were E.J. Sanford; born in Connecticut, he was one of the Union defenders of Fort Sanders in 1863, but may be best remembered for his son, Edward Terry Sanford, who became Knoxville’s only U.S. Supreme Court justice. Another partner was Hiram Chamberlain, an Ohio-born industrialist who had started the Knoxville Iron Company, and who was known for his progressive ideas on race. Another was Andrew Jackson Albers, a former Cincinnatian who’d been a Union Navy man who’d spent much of the war in Confederate prisoner-of-war camps.
Bud Albers, grandson of Andrew Jackson Albers, retired from the drug business and is one of the great supporters of Knoxville history. He believes that despite its early-20th-century facade, that building at the corner of Gay and Union was built in 1872. Photographs show a building almost exactly the same size and shape. It was probably the first building built on what had been the Old Base Ball Grounds, the Civil War-era ball field that eventually had to relocate.
The firm thrived here, doing both retail and wholesale business. Bud says Sanford, Chamberlain, and Albers was the only building on its block that survived the Great Fire of 1897. If you look closely at that famous photograph of the devastation, it’s still there, alongside a couple acres of smoldering rubble.
After more than half a century, Sanford, Chamberlain and Albers left this location in 1924, and moved to State Street. That was slightly before Bud’s time, but he says he’s heard that customers had complained about cramming Sanford, Chamberlain, and Albers onto a “Pay to the Order of” line, and by 1924, there were no longer Sanfords or Chamberlains involved in the business, just some Alberses. So with the move it became Albers Drugs, which kept growing, a major business presence in Knoxville for the rest of the 20th century. Bud thinks the new shoe company modernized the exterior with a stylish facelift about that time.
Well. You can still call it the Arby’s Building if you want to.