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602 S. Gay Street
Knoxville, TN 37902
I was catching up on some back issues over the weekend and just read the Secret History column “Too Big to Save?” from May 15. The column dealt mainly with Knoxville’s willingness to ignore the demolition of buildings from certain eras, maybe based on size or lack of mass aesthetic appeal. I am a fan of quality architecture from almost any era, but I am especially fond of mid-century modern design and it’s clean, functional, and low-key approach. We even have a side business called KnoxModern that offers mid-century furniture and accessories.
I do worry about Knoxville’s comfort with tearing down 50-year old mid-century buildings, while rising up to fight for buildings a few decades older. Granted, the dorms over at UT mentioned in the article, which are part of the huge West Campus Redevelopment Project, are a bit stark and could use more windows, but I still find them to be representative of a style that I’d hate to see completely eliminated from Knoxville’s skyline. We are losing the pink-bricked Baptist Hospital this year, too, but obviously the economic rewards weren’t there to save it and re-purpose it. We’ll miss the little Chapel on Blount Avenue with its red and turquoise slate floors and local pink marble walls.
Demolition will also begin this year on one of Knoxville’s largest cluster of mid-century structures over at the Lakeshore Park site. I’m happy to hear that the 1958 Chapel on that campus will be spared, along with the 1880s Administration Building. We will be losing the early ’60s modernist building near the hilltop trailhead parking lot off of Lyon’s View. It may be one of Knoxville’s better examples of this architecture style, with its terrazzo floors, large windowed stairwell, and covered, open-air patio spanned by a large former dining hall on the upper floor.
I hear there’s even talk of feasibility studies about whether the early ‘60s Civic Coliseum structures over on Hall of Fame Drive can be renovated or spared.
I read often where local historical groups lament the 1960s-’70s-era destruction of then 50+ year old buildings, but that’s pretty much what we are doing now by tearing down the 1950s-’60s buildings. Saving the structures from the 1940s-’60s can be challenging I know. It just so happens that those were the glory days for the asbestos industry and renovations can be costly. I fear that a few decades from now, we’ll all look back at photos of Baptist Hospital, UT, Lakeshore, the Old Supreme Court Building, and the Coliseum sites and say, “How could we have been so short-sighted to tear down all the ’50s-’60s architecture?”
I would like to give a thumbs-up to the group renovating and preserving much of the ’60s-era design and especially the green-glazed bricks on the old KUB Building downtown on Gay Street. I know that they heard some opposition who wanted them to get rid of those green bricks but they stood their ground. I’m hoping that building can be a model of how local mid-century buildings can be re-purposed.