A Study In Stucco: The Old City’s Modern Birthplace May Be Leaving Us

Preservationists are having a hard time finding practical reasons to oppose the latest downtown demolition, the stucco one-story building on Central Street, near the train tracks. It’s been vacant for years and is obviously falling apart. The glass-brick translucent windows are sagging, and in spots you can see the rusted chicken-wire skeleton. Its architecture, compromised over the years, isn’t the sort that grabs National Register attention. It’s considered “non-contributing” to the Old City, because the Old City is a Victorian-era neighborhood, and these are from the jazz age, and altered unrecognizably since then.

It’s also hard to ignore it. The original building’s owners were the Armetta family, a rare Italian clan in Knoxville. The Armettas made ice cream (you can still see their name on brick on the side of Sullivan’s), and were involved in other businesses, including a coal concern. It was a very simple building then, a pragmatic set of twins: two sets of doors and display windows and concrete blocks.

This unassuming little building rarely got noticed until it was 60 years old, when it witnessed the birth of a new concept called “the Old City.” Through the 1970s, the intersection of Jackson and Central was a part of town known to few middle-class Knoxvillians. Old Central still hosted a handful of daytime businesses then, but at night it was dead empty, and many of its buildings were vacant.

By most accounts it was Kristopher Kendrick who stuccoed over the concrete and open fronts at 106 N. Central to make it look a little more charming, with art-deco-style glass bricks. And he turned it over to gorgeous, petite Annie DeLisle, the very English ex-wife of novelist Cormac McCarthy. When she opened up a French restaurant down there, by the railroad tracks, most folks thought her naive and perhaps in imminent peril. Concerned West Knoxvillians watched with restrained horror, dreading what would happen. But within a year, Annie’s was the most talked-about restaurant in town. It was hard to get reservations. It was a couple years later before other restaurants and bars dared to open in the neighborhood.

In 1985, she expanded her restaurant into the old office space next door—it had most recently been the editorial office of a lifestyle monthly, which employed me in its final weeks—and made it a bar and nightclub, with an accessible back patio to a courtyard, unfolding like some hidden space in a dream, and there was live jazz every night.

And really good live jazz, much of it thanks to UT’s sprouting jazz program, which had just hired world-renowned pianist Donald Brown. He once told me that room was one of his favorite places to play anywhere. Most of the performers at Annie’s were local, but every once in a while, rising national stars would show up. When Annie got out of the restaurant business, and Tennessee, in 1989, it became Lucille’s, which kept the flame burning.

It was a musicians’ club. When a big-name performer was in town for a show at the Bijou or the Tennessee, they’d often show up quietly at this little saloon (often just after I’d left). I heard the stories, the next day, about how pianist Diana Krall showed up after a show, and played a set for Lucille’s 30-odd regulars, and of how Joan Baez was having such a good time there she took off her shoes and danced barefoot on the bar.

An avant-garde German cult band called Buddy and the Huddle appeared at Lucille’s in 1996 with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and recorded some ambient sound for an album released as Music for a Still Undone Movie Maybe Called Suttree. Though it was all about Cormac McCarthy’s Knoxville settings, the album got more attention in Germany than it did here. They credited their source, “Live at Lucille’s.” It was the first of several albums for the band.

The Lucille’s era ended in 2004, and though what followed was a good barbecue joint that was often more crowded than Lucille’s was, it was never again the sort of place that was a magnet to barefoot folk legends or eccentric German musicians. Nobody’s resurrected the Annie’s/Lucille’s spirit anywhere since then. Knoxville may have more good jazz instrumentalists than we had 20 years ago, and a few good places to hear jazz, but nowhere with the reputation of that unusual little place on Central Street.

The part of Annie’s/Lucille’s with most of the great stories will survive more or less intact. The bar/nightclub was located in an adjacent building, an older, larger, sturdier brick building.

What’ll be torn down is the original small, low-ceiling dining rooms that constituted Annie’s in its original two years, and the old kitchen, about which I’d heard spooky stories for years.

I should confess here that I may be prejudiced in favor of developer Randy Boyd, with whom I’ve been working on a long-form history of the Old City. For a couple of years he and his wife, Jenny, have been running Boyd’s Jig & Reel, across the street. He recently bought vacant Sullivan’s Saloon, the 1888 landmark about which some preservationists have been worrying. Architecturally, it’s the Old City’s defining principle, and maybe the primary reason preservationists cared about the forgotten district in the 1970s. It’s a vital save.

But the liveliness started at Annie’s. It would be great if they saved it, too. I haven’t found anybody who will tell me that’s possible, in any real world involving sane people with money. Faris Eid, a respected architect who has been involved in a great many worthy preservation projects downtown, doesn’t think they’re salvageable. Even the concrete floors are crumbling.

Today, some neighborhood denizens don’t recognize the name of the Old City pioneer who started it all. But for now, at least, the once-familiar name is still visible in flooring tile, just off the Central Street sidewalk at one of the entrances to that icon, in script so fancy it’s not a quick read: ANNIE’S.

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