Looking Back at the Knoxville High School that Was—And What It Could Have Been

Knoxvillians with any sense of history should have serious reservations about the RFP process that has been used to determine the disposition of the old Knoxville High School building. The scoring that was used to choose a winning proposal was flawed in the number of points allocated to measuring profit to Knox County. Historically, the school was a community investment. This building has an importance to the history of its surrounding neighborhood, and to its continued existence and redevelopment, that far surpasses the benefits of $500,000 to our county government. Decisions that will have a major impact on my neighborhood for years to come should not be driven by an amount equal to less than 0.07 percent of the county’s annual budget.

Knoxville High School was built between 1909 and 1931. The total expenditure by the City of Knoxville and its taxpayers was equivalent to $8 million today. With the consolidation of the school districts in 1986, all school properties belonging to the city system were conveyed to the county. The Knoxville High School property was transferred in 1992 for the nominal sum of $1,000.

This made sense at the time: it was an amenity belonging to the school district; it had been built to serve the purposes of education; it belonged to that legacy. Is it fair now for the school to be disposed of, with the funds obtained from this disposition simply to go into the county’s general fund? I don’t believe so.

In 1910, Knoxville’s superintendent of schools, Seymour Mynders, characterized the new Knoxville High School as “the fruition of Knoxvillians’ hopes and aspirations.” In an era when only three-quarters of American children attended school at all, the building embodied the progressive idealism of Knoxville’s citizens. It was an imposing public edifice in a city where the largest structures were warehouses and jobbing houses and a complex array of factories, all conspiring to cover Knoxville in the fine layer of black soot it became known for. “The building is the true expression of the common hope and faith of a free citizenship. It is the voice of the people in material form,” said Mynders.

Expansions followed in 1921 and 1931. By 1939, enrollment was up to 2,230, making Knoxville High School the fifth-largest high school in the South. But soon, with experts predicting that the population of Knoxville would be 600,000 by 1965, something had to be done, and the model of a single central city high school could not be sustained. By 1948, Young and Rule high schools had been completed. With plans in the works for East, Fulton, West, and Austin to be completed by 1952, old Knoxville High School’s final bell rang at 3:30 p.m. on May 31, 1951.

The empty, enormous school building became the offices of the Knoxville School Board, but the building was far too large for them, and the remainder of the building was used for storage. Rooms where James Agee and Patricia Neal attended classes were relegated to holding surplus supplies. Part of the rear wing of the building, having no other particular purpose, was converted into Knoxville Fire Station No. 3.

Various other uses were cobbled into available spaces over the years, but still, by the time the property was transferred from the city to the county, it was painfully obvious that any combination of a teachers’ credit union, adult education, and night alternative school did not add up to enough to equal a fully utilized building. Neither, it seemed, was there ever enough money to maintain the building, or any long-term commitment to keeping this white elephant from eventually falling in on itself.

In 2000, County Commissioner John Schmid said, “We’re slowly demolishing this building by keeping it in the school system. … It’s a beautiful building that a quality developer could turn into a first-rate project.” Yet it took another decade for the idea of the county surplussing the property to be discussed as an actual possibility, during which, despite some repairs, the building continued in its overall deterioration. Indeed, when evaluating sites for locating the new STEM Academy, Knox County’s own study ruled out old Knoxville High School for being too big and in poor enough condition that it could not be renovated within the required time frame.

So what criteria are used to determine this building’s future? Once an amenity for a growing city and its neighborhood, its fate lay in the hands of a county government that is often viewed by inner-city neighborhoods as being fairly indifferent to them. Once an investment by this city in the equivalent of $8 million, its fate lay in the hands of a county government that paid only $1,000 for it. Once a site that spurred development and investment in the surrounding neighborhood, it has sat for years, hulking and underutilized, sucking the life out of a corner chosen for the school building because of its central location.

This was an opportunity for a developer to conjure from the old school’s walls some of the hope and idealism in which it was created, and to bring back vibrancy to a pivotal corner of our city. The winning proposal scored second in “quality of rehab” and “intended use” but was skewed into first place by an outsized factor added by the Knox County Purchasing Department for the amount of money offered. The City of Knoxville promotes and subsidizes use in redevelopment considerations. Our county government, on the other hand, has demonstrated that it will gladly sell the soul of a neighborhood for enough cash. m

Arin Streeter is an architctural designer, historic preservation advocate, and a resident of Fourth & Gill.

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