Big Green Monster: So Was the Old KUB Building on Gay Street and Church Ever Attractive?

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Dear Doc Knox:

The recent award by the American Planning Association naming Gay Street one of the “Top 10 Great Streets in America” reminds one just how miraculous the overall recovery of downtown has been in general, and Gay Street in particular. However, there are several properties on Gay Street that have seemed to resist the revitalization efforts for reasons unknown to most citizens. The Kress Building and the Century Building are two of these, but the most perplexing is the less-than-appealing (and unoccupied) former KUB Building on the lucrative northeast corner of Church and Gay. I had always assumed that the green brick facade was merely covering the framework of an older building housing the old Knoxville Power and Light, the predecessor to KUB. However, I’ve been told that the building is actually a newer one from the 1950s built on the same site. What are the actual facts of history and what are the current factors preventing its use or replacement?

Sincerely,

Art Wagner

My Dear Mr. Wagner:

It’s a rather complicated answer. The big four-story shiny green building we see today, one of downtown’s last big empty buildings, may have some interior skeletal remnants of a three-story building built there around 1880. But what we see is mainly a radical makeover from 1963.

First it was a three-story furniture factory, a big Victorian brick building, associated with William Caswell, the same guy who later established the baseball park. In 1906, it was occupied by Knoxville Railway & Light Co., the private power company that also ran the streetcar system. When it was bought by the city in 1938, as TVA was changing the way we organize our power system, it became headquarters to KUB.

In 1951-52, Victorian was way out of style, about as embarrassing as 1960s buildings are now. KUB gave the building a makeover. What they did then is not what we see today. It got a moderne sort of look, with an elegant curved corner, sort of like a three-story postwar school building that had been redesigned by Studebaker, with stylish steel signage on a curvaceous awning. The generous window arrangements suggest that the old Victorian facade did not survive. The early ’50s makeover is the version that jumps out at people in old photographs, among the best-looking modernist office buildings ever built downtown.

That first makeover affected mainly the Gay Street front. Behind that, along Church, it was the same old 1880s Victorian brick building. When the stylish reconstruction was only about 11 years old, KUB reported the old building it was connected to was deteriorating. “The Church Avenue side of the building will be razed and replaced by a new building,” according to a news report. Another source reports they tore down about one-third of the old building.

Designed by Baumann & Baumann, the new building completely replaced the modernist front facade, adding a fourth floor.

In 1963, when everything was going modern, it looked amazing, even futuristic. In a promotional booklet, the new building is juxtaposed with a picture of a middle-aged couple wearing all white, as people of the future always do, and a suggestion that in the future, we may not even be using electricity anymore, but KUB will still be there. To be fair, the 1960s were a confusing time in American aesthetics. And the new green fortress may well have demanded less maintenance than either of its previous counterparts. Its KUB bills were probably lower, too.

So the Gay Street facade was taken off in 1951, and the whole Church Avenue side was torn down in 1963. If they did tear down one third of the old building, while adding a new fourth floor, our multiplication of fractions suggests that about one-half of the interior structure may date from the 1880s. None of the exterior does. Is there some substantial part of a Victorian building trying to get out of that four-story shiny greenish beast? Without tearing the building down again, it might be hard to prove.

A dozen years ago, KUB left the building when the agency moved into the Miller’s building they’d just helped renovate, leaving their original headquarters empty, as it has been ever since.

We agree it’s a peculiar-looking structure, its hue suggestive of the finest plankton. However, some people, and those we know were all born after 1970, consider it wonderful. Methinks there’s drollery in their perceptions.

It’s empty, yes, but after some years of complications involving the property—and we’ve been told asbestos was an issue—it’s slowly being renovated by a partnership of several big hitters. As has been announced since you originally submitted your query, Tim Hill, Mike Hatcher, David Dewhirst, and Mark Heinz are working together. Their plan is to keep about half the green tiles, but lighten up the building with much-bigger windows, to render about 36 apartments plus street-level commercial space. Though intrigued with the prospect of restoring the 1951 curve, traces of which remain beneath the green, they decided the square fourth floor made it unworkable. But the interior has lots of distinctive ’60s features, like terrazzo floors.

Work in earnest may start later in the spring, for a 2015 completion. But will we be calling it “the old KUB building” forever?

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Z. Heraclitus Knox

Have a curiosity that must be itched? Contact the good doctor at editor@metropulse.com.

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