St. John’s Cathedral is pictured in Knox Heritage’s sleek, new Historic Downtown Knoxville Walking Tour, which emphasizes renovated and well-kept buildings. The buildings at the center of the dispute are not in that brochure. They’re both brick buildings with some minimal decorative marble work and recessed front doors. The shorter one’s a little fancier than the taller one.
It’s been a long time since either of them have had their trim painted or their windows cleaned. Though the taller one features on its ground floor what must be some of the last real window shutters downtown, its third floor has suburban-style phony shutters, badly placed. They’re both built of a rough-sided dark-red brick. The brickwork is similar to that on the much-larger Farragut Hotel building on Gay Street, which was built about the same time. The shorter one has an unusually ornate tin gutter, battered by 90 years of hailstorms and snows.
Knox Heritage believes the two 1920s brick buildings may be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places because of what they are and where they are; they’re among the last remnants of a famously residential block. Their history hasn’t been very intensively studied. They’ve been home to hundreds of people.
Their architecture is not extraordinary; some large cities have hundreds of buildings comparable. Knoxville doesn’t have many. They’d be the first intact pre-World War II buildings to be demolished downtown in eight and a half years—and only the second and third since the 1990s.
Preservationists want to save the buildings because they’re part of the streetscape, and because they’re assets with potential for positive development for downtown. Whether they’re “historic,” in the museum-quality sense, isn’t germane to Knox Heritage’s proposals. But it’s at least an interesting question.
The buildings were both built in the early 1920s, their architects and developers unknown, at least for now. They were built at the end of a long boom in downtown residential development, on Walnut Street, which was then one of Knoxville’s most prestigious addresses, a street of tight row houses, diverse in style but all stone or brick, and two or three stories tall. Knoxville was so proud of the street that it was the subject of postcards. When these buildings were built, about 150 mostly affluent households lived on Walnut Street.
Both were originally single-family residences. Most of downtown’s modern residences are in buildings originally used for commercial purposes: offices, stores, even factories. These are two are among the few left built to be residences. The first resident of the taller building was one W.H. Walter, listed as president of the International Intelligence Bureau, an intiguing organization of less-than-obvious significance.
But later in the 1920s, automobile subdivisions like Sequoyah Hills and Holston Hills began tempting the affluent away from downtown, and by the mid-’20s, both buildings were hosting businesses on the ground floor, especially doctors’ offices, usually with apartments upstairs. The taller building, later sometimes known as the Professional Building, was for many years the office of Dr. J.Q.A. West, a European-trained proctologist, and later the office of dentist Dr. L.T. Coffey. The shorter was, for a quarter century, the office of Dr. John Moore, the public school system’s official physician.
They perhaps weren’t associated with anything famous, with one exception. The shorter of the two buildings, 712, was for a period of probably less than two years in the mid-1920s the address of a then very small company known as Dempster Construction & Equipment. This was, for a moment, the headquarters of George Dempster, then in his 30s, who would within a decade be nationally known as the inventor/manufacturer of the Dempster Dumpster, probably the most famous product ever produced in Knoxville, and a brand that gained international currency in the same way Frigidaire and Xerox did. He had a few other downtown offices early in his career, and it’s not proven that Dempster did anything remarkable here, but it’s the only surviving building downtown he’s associated with, at least as a businessman. It’s been useful to tour guides to point to it, just as an excuse to talk about Dempster’s remarkable career. (Dempster was an Episcopalian but a St. James parishioner.)
Still, preservationists want to save the buildings mainly because lesser ones have resulted in successful conversions. Many old brick buildings aren’t brick all the way around; walk down alleys all over downtown, and you’ll see blanker backs, of windowless concrete. These are brick on all sides.
Built 30 years after the historic sanctuary, these buildings are that have stood here throughout the memory of every living parishioner. Yet certain St. John’s opinion leaders denounce them as “dog-ugly.”
Few have looked at them more than their across-the-street neighbors who work at Lawson McGhee Library. “Sometimes I walk back to the plate glass windows just to look at them,” says Nelda Hill, a veteran librarian who’s seen them more days than not for more than 30 years. “From the second floor of the library, you’re at eye level with the tops of the buildings and I’ve watched storms brew and sunsets and pondered many a library issue from back there. In the ’80s, the occupants kept window boxes filled with geraniums, which was a wondrous sight in downtown Knoxville at the time. Neglected as they are, I still find them affecting and when the light hits right, they still show some spirit.”