Maybe you never heard of Jon Haas. Maybe you weren't familiar with his business ventures, and maybe you never lived in one of his Fort Sanders properties. But the measure of Haas' life was greater than the sum of those parts. From the Fort Sanders Yacht Club—the quirky little "barcade" that made best-of lists in at least two national publications—to Aisle Nine, the Old City's long-awaited first grocery, Haas was the kind of fellow whose ambitions took on a life of their own. He was also, by several accounts, one of the city's consummate renaissance men and raconteurs.
"He was one of those entrepreneurs that made Knoxville better," says Marleen Davis, distinguished professor and former dean of the College of Architecture and Design at the University of Tennessee.
Haas died at age 39 on Oct. 29, after a battling a brain tumor for two years.
That word "ambitions" looms large in characterizing Haas. Because when friends remember him, they usually employ some form of it. Ambitious—but not necessarily in the Zuckerbergian sense. "He always had his hands on something, fixing something, doing something," says wife Kara Haas. "And he was not the kind of guy to dream things and not put them into action."
Haas was an architecture student at UT back in the ‘90s, under the deanship of Davis. From the word go, Davis remembers that the undergraduate stood out as "a very independent and imaginative thinker… respected by his classmates, a class leader, academically exceptional. But it was more than that."
She remembers a particular project, involving a 2-foot-high concrete model, wherein Haas spent literally weeks on end experimenting with different configurations. "It was all very precise," she says. "And when he finished, it was kind of a marvel. He was always organizing classmates, and doing experiments with classmates."
He was also given to practical jokes, a predilection that dated to his high school days of building neighborhood pipe bombs, and that would continue well into adulthood. "Let's just say that I decided there were things that happened that I didn't need to know," Davis chuckles. She says that during her tenure as dean, unknown pranksters came in during off hours and built a concrete wall in the atrium of the dean's quarters, blocking access to her office. Some years later, the case remains open and unsolved. But Jon Haas' name is high on the list of suspects.
While at UT, Haas purchased and renovated his first property in Fort Sanders, at the tender age of 21. He also met his future wife, Kara, working at the Amsterdam Café, in the space that's now Hanna's in the Old City. The two were a couple within a month of their first acquaintance in October of 1995; they married in 2001, in a beach-side ceremony in Wilmington, N.C., that took the form of a week-long party, with cabin rentals for all of their friends.
The main thrust of Haas' business was that of landlord and property owner; he held around a dozen properties, mostly in Fort Sanders, at the time of his death. But that job description sells him short. "He liked the idea of buying homes and fixing them up," says fellow developer Jon Clark. "He was extremely capable in terms of fixing things up and problem solving."
And just as interesting as his primary interests were his avocations, his flights of fancy and his whims. Clark and Haas bonded in part over their love of old Porsches. Haas, in fact, loved automobiles in general, and working on automobiles in particular, and had over 30 cars in his collection—Porsches, German and Japanese models, muscle cars—in various states of operational capability.
"He did something called resto-mods, which are basically partial restorations of old cars, but with some non-original modifications," Clark says. "He was into racing, too, with a group called Grassroots Motorsports, where he would restore then race his own cars."
As to the latter, Kara Haas says, "He never won, but he always had the most people amazed by what he did with the cars. He'd cram all the work into the last three weeks and come out with something incredible. Cars were his passion."
He had other, lesser, passions, too. Like skateboarding. And DJ-ing, which he did, on occasion, under the moniker of 40 Ounces of Funk. And building furniture, which he taught at UT at the School of Architecture and Design.
He gave vent to all of his talents and proclivities with the Fort Sanders Yacht Club, a 9-foot-wide monument to all of his obsessions. "Jon called it a ‘barcade," Clark says. "It's an intimate little place with '80s video games and a great beer selection. It represents all of his interests; furniture design, motor racing… It's a quirky little place, but very cool."
Kara Haas notes that her husband fabricated all of the benches that went into the Yacht Club—featured in both the Huffington Post and Men's Health Magazine in their lists of nationally ranked college bars—and also repaired all of the 20-year-old arcade machines that fill its nooks and crannies. Likewise, he performed a great deal of the work at Aisle Nine, the grocery store he opened in the Old City in 2010. "He took it from start to finish," Kara says.
With Haas' passing, Clark is advising the family on some of its holdings. He's also taken over one project Haas never saw through—the renovation of the historic Pickle Mansion in Fort Sanders, which Haas purchased in the early 2000s in hopes of rehabbing it and moving his family there. Clark says, "We have an open permit for interior demolition and exterior cleanup, to begin any time now." Plans are for a multi-unit apartment there, but "there's flexibility to accommodate many uses."
Haas also leaves behind a family; besides wife Kara, he has three children, 8-year-old Ethan, 7-year-old Riley, and 4-year-old Indie. For friends and family, the loss of a young father is a hard thing to figure, much more so than the passing of an old house.
"It's difficult to truly capture his spirit," Davis says. "He was always happy, always the kind of person you wanted to be around. Because he was so energetic, it was so hard to understand how he could be this sick."