Forty years ago, Kristopher Kendrick was a West Knoxville hairdresser. At some point he turned his talents toward his aging city, jeered by one well-traveled authority as the ugliest in America. It struck the hairdresser as a challenge, perhaps his greatest. He looked at the frumpy old town that his peers preferred to mock, neglect, and, one day, escape, and tried to make it glamorous. Even if his civic makeover didn't achieve everything he imagined, he encountered success unexpected from most dreamers.
In 1970 Kendrick established The Orangery in Bearden; the multi-star continental eatery was for almost 40 years the best-regarded restaurant in Knoxville. Then he began buying old buildings here and there on the neglected fringes of town, in an era when Victorian buildings were often torn down by the dozens without public protest.
About 30 years ago, he surveyed one of our scruffier quarters, a section of vacant freightyard warehouses and second-hand shops most Knoxvillians preferred to pretend wasn't there, and coined the term "the Old City." As he did with patrons of his salon, he didn't ignore her flaws, but exalted her own best qualities. He particularly admired the turreted Patrick Sullivan building, mouldering as a storehouse, and fixed it up to be a saloon, a purpose it had not served in 70 years. It became the centerpiece of a new paradigm.
Kendrick created mythologies. If the Old City wasn't literally the oldest part of town, the fact that Kendrick preferred to think it so was part of its surprising success. He believed in downtown long before sane investors did.
When he bought an old home on a dark block of Hill Avenue, he thought it had the makings of an elegant nightclub. He named it the Lord Lindsey, creating speculation about who the honored nobleman was. Kendrick said he just made him up. On Market Square he fixed up a boutique hotel and named it the St. Oliver; there was a real St. Oliver, but if you Google him, you're likely to find this hotel.
As he preserved and restored, he applied grace notes to his city. A pocket rose garden sprouted on King Street near Emory Place; it's a tribute to the memory of his old friend, fashion entrepreneur Mary Gill.
He was a thin, elegant man with Shakespearean features, a face from which you'd expect a British accent. No one ever called him a modest fellow, and he left his name on several of his favorite projects: The rowhouses known as Kendrick Place, on Locust Street, was one of downtown's first successful historic-rehab condo projects. The Kristopher, in Maplehurst, is a lovely old apartment building that looks like it belongs in Baltimore.
He didn't get to share the full profits of downtown's 21st-century revival. Suffering health problems, he withdrew from active development years ago. David Dewhirst, downtown's most ambitious preservationist developer, credits Kendrick as his original inspiration. He carried out Kendrick's long-cherished dream of restoring Gay Street's Emporium building.
In his later years, Kendrick moved into the St. Oliver. About a year ago, his friends, several of them known to him as "the Immortals," feted him with a flattering and well-attended documentary at the Bijou Theatre.
We saw him just a few days ago, enjoying the spring on a lively Market Square Saturday, a noble-looking old gentleman in his wheelchair, unrecognized by most who saw him.