citybeat (2006-01)

Gay Street to be graced with 70 new condo units

Mobile Home

Wednesday, Dec. 28

Pent up Penthouse Demand

New condominium construction on Gay Street with prices ranging above $1 million may sound pretty fantastic, but architect Buzz Goss, a principal in the partnership of companies putting the building together, says the recent announcement of the plan has generated a lot of interest from prospective buyers.

“The Knox Merchant,” as it is called, would encompass seven stories above the street, with storefront retail, two floors of parking below street level, 70 condo units ranging from 1,500 square feet to up to 4,500 square feet, and a proposed arcade connecting Gay with the city’s transit center on State Street.

Goss, whose Bigboy Properties LLC is partnering with developer David Dewhirst, IT entrepreneur Patrick Hunt and downtown property owner David Ewan in the venture, says four to six “penthouse” units in the brick, marble and glass structure would be custom-fitted to the buyers’ preferences and that the smaller units would be semi-customed after the initial build-out.

The penthouses would each have a large, walk-out terrace and what Goss calls “the highest level of finishes—Viking appliance packages, high-end kitchens and bathrooms” and will sell in the million-dollar-plus range when completed.

“One of the criticisms we’ve heard of downtown (residential properties) is that there’s been nothing available with the level of finishes we’re going to provide,” Goss says.

Still to be negotiated with the city is the partnership’s proposal to enclose the transit center’s walkway to Gay Street and include retail outlets along a passage through the heart of The Knox Merchant.

“We want to include something that would enhance the pedestrian experience,” Goss says. He says the building, situated on what is now a below-grade surface parking lot between the new Mast General Store and the Commerce Building in Gay Street’s 300 block, will have to allow for Gay Street access to the Transit Center, as its design predicates. The arcade would be a bonus to the center’s users as well as to his building, he suggests.

Mobile Home

Just off North Central, on Scott, between an empty lot and the back of a foam-rubber outlet, is a lonesome two-story white clapboard house. It’s Victorian in style, with elaborate sunburst patterns over the upper windows. If all goes well, by the time you read this, it will be up on jacks. After 115 years in the same place, it’s time for a move.

Financial planner Sean Bolen bought the house when he heard it was slated to be demolished for the construction of a new FISH pantry warehouse. A neighbor, he’d been interested in the classic George Barber-designed house for years. Its then-owner rebuffed Bolen’s queries, intending to convert it into office space. However, when they finally chose to sell to FISH, Bolen was the first to hear the food-distributing charity didn’t need the old house and was agreeable to sell the house to Bolen, delaying their project to let him move it off the property. “They’ve been very good to work with,” he says.

Bolen won’t hint at the cost—just that moving the house is more expensive than the house itself—and that most of the expense of moving it is dealing with the 23 utility lines that have to be crossed despite the short trip, hardly more than a block. He got BellSouth to permanently bury some lines for the project; the others will have to be raised.

The cost of moving utility wires and poles was what doomed plans to move the Keller House on UT’s campus last year; it was finally torn down, but much of it was stored for salvage. It may seem poetic justice that some doors from the Keller House may end up on Bolen’s house. 

Bolen hopes to move the house in the next few days—Monday is the target date—to a hilltop site on the other side of Central, on the western edge of the renovating neighborhood known as Old North.

He calls it the Margaret F. Stuart House; the widow and her two children were the first occupants, in 1891. Its architect was the best known one who ever lived in Knoxville; Barber was nationally popular in his heyday, when his extravagant designs were sold to build houses in neighborhoods across America. Bolen points out the house’s design, on page 29 of Barber’s famous catalogue. “He was one of the most popular Victorian architects,” Bolen says. “We should try to promote him as much as he can. There should be George Barber tours.”

It has three gables. “That’s a little decadent, except for corner lots,” Bolen says. Some of its ornamentation was visible only from the neighbors’ houses. It’ll be a little more conspicuous on the new lot. With two floors, it’s a 2,200-square-foot house, but Bolen’s fitting out the attic and adding a basement in the new location to make it more like 4,000 square feet.

And on a hill, the long-vacant, once-threatened house will offer views of the mountains and downtown Knoxville. Bolen points them out as if he’s looking forward to living there, but he won’t. He’s asking $289,000 for the newly placed house, a price in line with several of its neighbors.

He’ll have to work for it, though. Bolen has repaired or replaced much of the original detailing, stripped several layers of paint off the heart-pine staircase, but still has to shuck the thick layers of tarpaper and particle board off the hardwood floors, and rebuild the walls, which are currently stripped down to the studs. For the work he’ll use some wood from a felled oak tree on the site.

As Bolen speaks about the project on the new lot, a trailer arrives with a backhoe to do some preparatory groundwork. The company that’s in charge, M&M House Movers, of Harrogate, will hoist the house on hydraulic jacks, then load it onto an 18-wheeler, which will—very slowly—convey it to the new location. The actual move will take about 30 minutes. “They say you can put a glass of water in your house, and come back and find it still there,” Bolen says. “I’m going to put a full glass of water on the newel post, and see if it works.”

When it happens, Bolen says, he wants the TV cameras to be there. Moving a house, especially a large, historic house, doesn’t happen very often in Knoxville; in 2001, the Victorian DeArmond house moved across Clinch Avenue in Fort Sanders.

“It doesn’t happen very much at all,” says Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage. “When you move it, it automatically loses its [national register] historic designation. So we really discourage it. But in this case, the alternative was demolition. And it fills in a gap in the Old North neighborhood.”

As rare as it is, there will be another historic house moved in the area this winter. Currently facing the Broadway exit, a house targeted for demolition by TDOT’s interstate expansion project will move more modestly, to face Glenwood, without crossing streets.

Of the Stuart house, Trent says, “It’s a wonderful home, and Sean is so brave to do this. He’s doing a remarkable job. A lot of times, people have the vision, but not the ability. Sean has the vision and the ability.”

Bolen, a Knoxville native, lives with his wife and kids in a renovated house around the corner on Oklahoma, and has renovated a couple of other houses in situ . He’s proud of his neighborhood.

“There are two things I hate,”  he says. “One is when I say I live in Old North, and people say, ‘Oh, Fourth and Gill?’” It’s a touchy subject in Old North, which is not quite as thoroughly renovated as its neighbor to the southeast. Bolen compares the two to the tortoise and the hare, Fourth and Gill getting the quicker start.

In fact, East Scott is looking fairly grand these days; the ridgetop street looks like what some wished for Fort Sanders’ beleaguered Laurel Avenue. The Stuart house is to go on the site of a house that burned long ago, next door to the childhood home of Clarence Brown, the legendary MGM director. The lot was vacant so long that the neighborhood chose to use its front yard to install a brick sign designating the entrance to the neighborhood. For now, Bolen sees no reason to move it.

The second question Bolen would prefer never to hear again is, “Did you see The Money Pit ?” The reference is to the Tom Hanks/Shelley Long movie about a couple of naive yuppies who set out to renovate a cursed house. “It’s not a good movie,” Bolen says, with some certainty. “It’s not even that funny. And I’ve gained equity in my houses.”


Wednesday, Dec. 28

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