After years of frustrations, the city has finally taken control of the long-embattled McClung Warehouses at 517-25 W. Jackson Ave., buying them for $1.45 million. In a hastily convened conference Tuesday evening, Mayor Madeline Rogero announced the city will be seeking proposals from developers, soon after the purchase is approved by City Council.
The phrase "McClung Warehouses" has long guaranteed headaches for preservationists and downtown boosters. Located alongside the rail yards between Broadway and Gay, they'd been the subject of repeatedly promised but apparently frustrated renovation efforts for about nine years before they went up in flames in early 2007. That fire destroyed the largest of the brick buildings. Since then, the two remaining have been tangled in lawsuits and a bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, despite the stubborn eyesore, positive things have been happening on West Jackson, on either side of the McClung plot. Dewhirst Properties is nearly finished renovating the Armature Building and a string of residential and retail spaces on the Gay Street side, while on the Broadway side, Conversion Properties' six-floor Southeastern Glass building has become one of downtown's most striking residential redos—while across the street even an abandoned filling station has become a popular pub.
As that neighborhood improves dramatically, the McClung property has remained a missing link. It doesn't help that these obviously vacant buildings are also among the downtown buildings most conspicuous from Interstate 40. The city's been working behind the scenes with Knoxville's Community Development Corp. and with bankruptcy attorneys and trustees representing the former owner, trying to unravel a tangle further complicated by the recession.
Most of the buildings were built to house C.M. McClung & Co., a hardware firm, liberally defined. Founded by Calvin M. McClung (1855-1919), the major wholesale company supplied everything from hand tools to heavy machinery, plus plows, rifles, fences, etc., eventually doing enough of a consumer-goods mail-order-catalog business that it became a regional answer to Sears, Roebuck. McClung remained at the site until finally going out of business in the early 1980s. The buildings hosted a few other businesses after that, including an electronics firm, but by the 1990s were mostly vacant, with the notable exception of respected cabinetmaker Ernie Gross.
Would-be developer Mark Saroff originally proposed an admirably unusual plan for the buildings, using low-income tax credits to create a mixed-income housing project. It would have been one of downtown's biggest and most affordable residential projects. Saroff did substantial work on the interior of the buildings—then stalled, apparently unable to complete the work, but unwilling to sell.
The buildings were briefly a property-rights cause celebre, with some pundits and politicians (among them then-Rep. Stacey Campfield) hailing Saroff's right to proceed with his properties at his own pace. Then, six and a half years ago, a spectacular fire broke out. Ascribed, uncertainly, to vagrants seeking heat, the biggest inferno seen downtown in several decades destroyed the largest, oldest, and fanciest of the buildings, those that made up the original part of the Victorian-era wholesale firm. The oldest dated to 1893, the high point of the Richardsonian Romanesque style of Victorian commercial architecture. The fire also destroyed the workshop of respected cabinetmaker Ernie Gross, who has since moved his operation to Clinton.
What remained were two vacant buildings, one built in 1911, one in 1927, six stories and four stories, respectively, on the Jackson Avenue elevation, which is shorter than the railroad-yard side. The newer building was long home to the Crane Co., a plumbing and mill-supplies wholesaler, for some decades before it was acquired by McClung in the 1960s, and still shows the Crane name in marble on its facade. (That building is also the location of an unusual 1981 mural that was the subject of a recent Secret History column.) About 1.7 acres are involved.
That stretch of West Jackson presents an interesting urban-design problem: there are no intersections at all between Gay and Broadway, and a very steep slope on Jackson's south side, which once featured a very long staircase up to Vine Street. It's downtown's longest block. But it may play a key role as part of the elusive pedestrian corridor between the Old City and World's Fair Park—which, on a map, aren't very far apart at all.