Hidden Treasure? Maybe Not, but Old Market Square Buildings Yield Interesting Stuff

Scruffy City Hall, which enjoyed its grand opening last month, is not your grandmother’s nightclub. The second-floor loggia, the most controversial aspect of the plan in terms of historic zoning, is relatively conventional compared to what you’ll find inside.

Inside, you’re greeted by a multi-armed brass elephant. On the way upstairs, an old hand-painted mural depicts a Chinese scene of pagodas. A microbrewery (surprisingly, in the whole microbrewery era, it’s just downtown’s second) is going into the basement. Upstairs is an interior balcony, unrelated to the loggia, where people can sit on terraced pews and watch a show below. There’s a Gothic-arch motif reflected in some arched doorways. It all looks somehow natural, as if it already has a patina. I suspect that within a year, people will be coming in here and assuming it was all meant to be this way.

You might not notice the Buddha until you leave. It’s above the door, perhaps offering some wisdom for your journey home.

“The Gothic arches are sort of Catholic, church pews are sort of Protestant, there’s some Celtic stuff,” explains co-owner Scott West. “I thought, what we need now is something Buddhist, and something Hindu.” His brother Mike sometimes deals in antiques. “Mike says ‘I’ve got a big Buddha, and I’ve got a Ganesh.’” Of course. Problem solved. Elephant-headed Ganesh is the Hindu God of Beginnings, and Remover of Obstacles.

Scott West and his wife Bernadette came up with the building’s design, though much of it’s the work of master carpenter Paul Eastes, who’s been working here for months. He and his co-workers have found some very interesting stuff, and fortunately have the discernment to notice it.

Number 32 Market Square has been a grocery, a shoe store, a lunch room, a dress shop, a tea shop. You figure there’d be something interesting here, and there is. There’s a Tucker’s Alarm Till, a sort of precursor to the cash register, designed to ring an alarm if the drawer is opened improperly. It’s not all intact, but they’ve got the drawer, with concave wooden bowls for scooping change. It’s well over a century old.

They’ve found some interesting old bottles. One narrow glass vial that looks like it once held some dangerous elixir. And a larger glass bottle, a pint or more, empty except for part of a cork, embossed DR. MCLEAN’S STRENGTHENING CORDIAL & BLOOD PURIFIER. (Born in Scotland, Dr. James Henry McLean [1829-1886] spent most of his career in St. Louis, manufacturing patent medicines. Online, there appears to be some question among his erstwhile biographers about whether he was an actual doctor of medicine.)

Paul found the penny when he removed concrete from an old I-beam. It was just sitting on top, an old Indian-head penny, worn and pitted, but you can still make out the date. It’s 1859. As even beginning collectors know, 1859 was the first year of the Indian-head design. It’s sought for that reason, and also because its design changed discernibly after the first year, so 1859 Indian-head pennies look different from all other Indian-head pennies.

Like new, 1859 pennies sell in the hundreds. But this one, which might easily have been carried in a Civil War soldier’s pocket, is a little the worse for wear. It’s interesting to find something from 1859, an especially anxious year on then-new Market Square.

None of this is worth a fortune, but the Wests mean to make a little shrine of it.

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Downtown’s numismatic trove of the century, so far as I know, was two doors down, in the four-story building on the corner. Owner Ken Mills finished work on his Woods & Taylor building last summer, rendering nine condominiums, plus ground-floor retail space, now occupied by the Orange Leaf yogurt parlor. They ran into problems they never expected. “It was stressful, and far more expensive than we thought,” Mills says, “but I look at it now and feel a lot of pride.”

The tallest building on the Square has been here for well over 100 years. It’s been mostly a department store, but has been cut up over the years and used for multiple street-level shops. By the time Mills bought it in 2007, it had been empty for a long time, and was becoming a serious falling hazard. Mills had to rebuild much of it. And he found some pocket change, five coins 95 years old or older.

His oldest coin bests the Wests find by two years, an 1857 Flying Eagle penny. It has some value, though probably not more than the bill for a family of four at the Orange Leaf.

A little more intriguing may be an 1865 three-cent piece. Not just the piece itself, or the dramatic year of its minting, but where he found it. It wasn’t in the building, exactly, but in the dirt beneath, what he thinks was about 13 inches below the surface. It brings up an interesting fact about this property. The northeast corner of the Square was the last to be developed, and for a few years after the Civil War, was still an open field where folks gathered to trade. The first bicycle ever seen in Knoxville was for sale in this lot, around 1867. I don’t doubt folks lost some change there.

Others date more decisively from the building’s prime. Millions of dollars changed hands in here over the years, and only a little was lost. But there’s a 1902 dime with an O mark, indicating it was minted in New Orleans, in the old mint that’s now a museum, on the edge of the French Quarter. And there’s an 1899 Liberty nickel and a 1919 Buffalo nickel.

Some of us remember when Buffalo nickels still showed up in your pocket. That 1919 nickel’s not so rare. Maybe I dropped it there, myself. I used to spend a lot of time in that building, 40-something years ago, in a little place facing Wall Avenue. I was an enthusiastic teen numismatist, and this building housed Knoxville’s only rare-coins shop.

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Comments » 1

felix writes:

Excellent story

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