Downtown's Daylight Building Starts Refurbishing

A long-neglected building on Union Avenue gets a major makeover

Lunchtime pedestrians on their way to Pete's popular coffee shop began noticing crews working on Union Avenue's long-vacant Daylight Building a couple of weeks ago, cleaning the outside, tearing down interior additions inside. Not long after they got started, an impertinent pedestrian hollered across to the foreman, "Why don't you just tear that nasty old thing down?"

Soon, for pedestrians who looked closely, it didn't seem quite so nasty. Workers appeared to be installing bright copper window trim on the plain old Daylight. But it turns out they weren't actually installing it. It had always been there, covered with bland yellow paint. More surprises were to come.

Built in 1927, the blond-brick building is long but dwarfed by its big sister, the slightly fancier and much-larger Pembroke across the street. The Daylight, a former TVA building, had been only partly occupied since Whittle Communications left it in the early 1990s. Holrob, best known for its suburban developments, bought the building about four years ago and evicted the Daylight's few tenants, including the Union Avenue Barber Shop. The development team attempted to market it as a historic building, but also considered major projects that would have called for demolishing it, including a multi-story residential tower and the elusive new main library (whose tentative arrival in World's Fair Park may now be coming unhinged). One year ago, distracted by bigger prospects, like the ambitious Sentinel Tower a few blocks away, Holrob sold the Daylight to Dewhirst Properties for $1.35 million.

David Dewhirst, downtown's most successful developer of this century so far, arrives alone, on bicycle, to show a reporter around. Dewhirst has been renovating for more than a decade, but still shakes his head at what people do to good buildings. Pointing to the brightly polished copper that's now so obvious, he says, "It was painted over! Nobody knew it was copper. People thought it was wood or tin."

Earlier this summer, Dewhirst opened the huge conversion of Jackson Avenue's empty JFG building into new apartments. The firm is either canny or very lucky; Dewhirst is best known for luxury condos, but chose to concentrate on more modest-priced rental projects just before the worst recession in 70 years. JFG opened this summer, and rented most of its 55 units within two weeks.

The Daylight project will be finished about one year from now, by August, 2010. It'll add 40 rental units, priced $550 for an efficiency to $1,250 for a two-bedroom apartment. In five years, a tenure required to get tax credits for this sort of a building, he'll probably sell it as condos.

The downstairs will be all retail, as it was 80 years ago, perhaps with an office or two (he says a small law firm is expressing serious interest). It sounds like he has specific hopes for the sunny corner space. "Dare I say it? A gourmet grocery kind of place," he says. The downtown grocery, promised by several developers over the last five or six years, has so far eluded material reality.

Asked what makes the Daylight worth the trouble, Dewhirst nods to its history. "Being an engineer myself, it's pretty interesting that it's one of the two buildings where TVA really did get started," he says. "But it's a great location, that's why." Almost adjacent to downtown's most durable residential conversions, the Pembroke and Kendrick Place (both occupied upscale condos for more than a quarter century) as well as the newly constructed and occupied Residences at Market Square, it now seems like a stable neighborhood. It's a block from Market Square, and among rental residences likely to appeal to, say, academics, it's among the closest to campus.

"It's got to work economically. If it doesn't, you can't do it," says Dewhirst, who intends to spend more than $5 million on the renovation, assisted, if all works out, by federal historic tax credits and local tax-increment financing. "This building works. Part of it's the basic geometry: long, narrow, lined with windows." The apartments are small, and probably not ideal for people who like to throw big dinner parties. "It's what we call ‘quality intimate space.'"

On the building's historical interest, Dewhirst defers to his architect/partner, Mark Heinz, who has been especially enthusiastic about the Daylight. Originally from Pennsylvania, Heinz has made an avocation of Knoxville's peculiar history, and through his own collection of photographic images—his postcard collection is unmatched—has an unusually vivid idea of what every block downtown looked like in the early 20th century. He says the 500 block of Union is, in appearance, one of the blocks most readily recognizable to someone returning from the '20s and '30s.

"It's not a work of art in architecture," Heinz says of the Daylight. "But it has a great scale." The second floor features what he calls a "loop corridor," a square hallway with offices on both sides all the way around. Heinz says it was a practical style common in Chicago in the '20s and '30s. Then there's how the Daylight got its name: All the spaces, even those on the interior of the loop, are sunlit. The roof once sported a clerestory, a greenhouse-like structure on the roof that illuminated the interior. Dewhirst and company intend to restore it; long before office buildings had glass skins, the Daylight had more glass than any building in Knoxville.

Heinz thought the building was worth saving before a series of surprises. "The copper windows totally shocked all of us," he says—convincingly, as if he's still recovering. Almost as startling was the fact that part of the canopy, now an opaque yellow and first presumed to be tin, turns out to be what Heinz calls "opalescent glass." He says it was a clever lighting trick. In 1927, "as a pedestrian, you'd just see, instead of a light bulb, this glow of translucent glass." He's not sure when it was all painted over; he suspects the '70s, a decade that seems to get a lot of blame for cheap aesthetic choices. They'll restore it. "David and I just latch on to these things. We just go."

However, he's not quite as sure about another discovery, that the Walnut side had stained-glass transoms, probably purple. All that glass is gone now, replaced with plywood; they haven't made a final decision about now to proceed concerning that detail.

Another surprise was upstairs: The real ceilings are three to five feet higher than the current ceilings, and they're made of big planks of heart pine, difficult to find today. They'll be restored, along with the clerestory, which will serve as an effective second floor for the middle apartments.

Beyond the building's long-suppressed details, Heinz's research also suggests the building is genuinely historic.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the most ambitious and comprehensive of the New Deal programs, arrived in Knoxville in 1933. Of the four buildings that served as its original headquarters, the Daylight, which housed much of TVA's engineering division, is the one most intact. (The building now known as the Pembroke, then called the New Sprankle, was the main TVA HQ, but it's been radically altered inside.) Moreover, Heinz is convinced that the Daylight's builder, Benjamin Sprankle—like Heinz, a Pennsylvania native, and one of Knoxville's most successful developers of the first third of the 20th century—may have taken the lead in convincing TVA, which was originally planned to be headquartered in Muscle Shoals, Ala., to instead make its home in Knoxville. That's the folklore, Heinz says, and his research suggests there's some truth to it. Heinz doesn't know for certain whether TVA's famous dam-building projects were drawn up by the engineers who worked in the Daylight Building, but it's an intriguing question.

The Daylight was here several years before TVA, though, and among the distinctions Heinz has learned about is that one of its first ground-floor tenants, ca. 1928-32, was Robin Thompson, younger brother of Smokies photographer Jim, and himself a nationally successful photographer known for magazine ads and aerial photography. The Daylight has appealed to several artists over the years, and Heinz says it served as the younger Thompson's first solo studio.

All that's not just trivia. The scale of renovation Dewhirst and Heinz are envisioning would be unlikely without federal tax credits. For a building to be eligible for the credits, which amount to 20 percent of qualifying rehab expenses, it has to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places, and it helps if the building's in an identifiable historic neighborhood. Demolition of some nearby buildings in recent years, especially the old Sprankle in 2005, made earning tax credits on Union Avenue more problematic. Without a historic neighborhood, the Daylight had to earn historical status on its own, a higher hurdle.

Ann Bennett of the Metropolitan Planning Commission and Kim Trent of Knox Heritage helped with the appeal to prove the building was historically worthy on its own. Early efforts had been discouraging. The Tennessee Historical Commission in Nashville had first been skeptical of the Daylight's ineligibility for the federal tax credits, a disappointment not only to Dewhirst but to Knox Heritage and the Metropolitan Planning Commission.

The state commission began to come around early this summer, after some meetings in Nashville and the filing of an apparently convincing document asserting the Daylight's importance in the early, heroic era of TVA. With a further nod from the National Park Service, they'll be on the National Register of Historic Places. As of now, they've gotten conditional approval—enough, apparently, to go ahead and begin construction, after the year wait. "We're so close," Heinz says, "we're really almost there."