Scott and Bernadette West's Bold Scruffy City Hall Raises Another Controversy on Market Square

Scott and Bernadette West's latest project, at 32 Market Square, is an extremely unusual nightclub. Its name is already marked in a concrete patch in front of it: Scruffy City Hall. The promoted Appalachian Viking theme is just part of it. The interior will be a multi-level complex with a large stage and several extraordinary features, including fold-down "Viking tables" of thick wood, a basement brewery, and an interior balcony, accessed from the second floor, with fixed seating. But what made it controversial in recent Historic Zoning Commission meetings was a change to the building's facade to include a recessed second-floor balcony.

Several members protested that changing the appearance of a historic building's facade is inappropriate in a designated historic zone like Market Square, where most of what you see is authentic to the approximately 60-year period after the Civil War. But after some rancorous discussion, it's been approved, and the Wests are proceeding with their plans. The goal is to finish it by December, but touring the site recently to the sound of circular saws, Bernadette West admits that's ambitious.

The idea for Scruffy City Hall came in consultation with their architect, Brett Honeycutt, and it became inherent to their ideal of a place that celebrated the Local. "We wanted something that wasn't the Preservation Pub, twice, something that's different," says Scott West. The basement brewery, the large listening room, and the balcony bar, he thinks, will make it appreciably different.

The project has become an interesting case study in preservationism.

Prospective Scruffy City Hall is two doors away from their extravagant Preservation Pub, the popular three-level bar/nightclub, controversial with historic-zoning folks a few years ago for its third-floor rooftop garden/patio, disdained by some because rooftop patios had never been a feature of the Square historically. By backing it away from the very edge, the Wests finally got approval, and believe its popularity proves they were right about it. When we caught up with them, early Tuesday morning, they were both up there, covered with concrete dust, working on finishing their "magic beer-giving tree," a rooftop bar set up inside a concrete-lined tree trunk that looks like something from Hollywood's Oz. Every now and then, the Wests have to descend to the Square and to the other place, two doors down, where a crew is hard at work on the new building.

The building at No. 32, most recently owned by the Gencay family, had housed, in recent years, a couple of interesting if not durable retail shops, Swagger and 10,000 Villages. Bigger than it looks from the front, it includes a large basement, unusual on Market Square. The building hasn't been fully occupied in many years.

No. 32 Market Square was, for decades, home of Kinney's Shoes, but it was built to be a grocery. Once known as the McNulty Building, for a prominent grocer who probably built the building around 1890, it was longer associated with McNulty's onetime parter, Jacob Borches, who ran what contemporary accounts describe as a "large retail grocery" here. The Borcheses also ran a big wholesale department down on East Jackson, but until about World War I, kept their retail establishment here. At some point it was split vertically into two separate spaces.

Later stores sold everything from dresses to tea, but it looks like the building was always a store except for three or four years in the 1930s, when Harry Saltos opened Harry's Lunch Room here. It may be the source of an unexpected mural on plaster, a rather well-painted scene of Chinese people in traditional garb, in the vicinity of a pagoda. The 1930s was the era of the first Chinese-restaurant vogue, and maybe that was a theme at Harry's. An artist herself, Bernadette West is charmed by the painting, which will be partly visible along the stairway up to the balcony bar.

The new establishment will include a large stage, 22 feet wide. Scott West says the building's capacity is around 300, with 200 able to see the stage. He says it will be more of a listening room than Preservation Pub, with fewer shows but perhaps bigger ones. He pictures installing a movie screen for films. The building's most unusual feature is not the controversial one, but a sort of drop-down balcony. It'll only seat 22, in fixed chairs, and will be reserved for friends and the most regular customers.

The Wests' proposal calls for redesigning the facade of the historic building with four rectangular upstairs windows. Narrower than most modern windows, the current ones might easily be assumed to be original. While some of the top part of the facade's modest decor may be original, and the bricks themselves look old, most of the bricks around the windows look badly patched together, jumbled in ways you wouldn't need to be a brickmason to notice. It looks worse on the inside. "All this stuff is just horrible, whatever happened to it," Bernadette West says. "I'm all for saving stuff, but look at this. If a brick came out, they just put concrete in it."

The four narrow windows look old. But some blurry photographs of the building strongly suggest that the building originally had three broad, slightly arched windows, separated by narrow columns. Their bricked-in outlines were still obvious, beneath paint, as recently as the 1960s. There's what appears to be a little bit of arch left in the chaotic brickwork on the inside. In fact, during Metropolitan Planning Commission research, it came up that, eight years ago, architecture firm Goss Piercy Goss, well known for its preservationist work, proposed a restoration of the three-broad-window style.

Rather than the revamped windows, the Wests' proposed 14-foot-deep recessed balcony became the main issue. Historically, such features are most often seen in urban residences. Though several Market Square buildings included residences, this one did not. It was a commercial building, and commercial buildings tended to maximize interior floor space. They had no use for balconies.

We didn't find opponents to the Wests' job who wanted to speak for the record, but one, suggesting the Wests were trying to change the character and feel of Market Square, responded, "This is not New Orleans."

However, as has been discussed in Historic Zoning Commission meetings, the Square is already home to two other buildings with recessed balconies. No. 7 Market Square, which originally included an upstairs residence, is the only historic building with a recessed balcony, and its three-arch design is remarkably similar to what the Wests propose. No. 32 may never have been a residence, but thanks to that exception at #7, it's harder to prove that a recessed balcony is utterly out of character for the Square as a whole. Then, about 10 years ago, the Chamber of Commerce added a long recessed balcony, though it was done in Market Square's only post-1960 building, a utilitarian cinder-block structure that raised little concern from preservationists.

Kaye Graybeal, historic preservation planner for MPC, surprised some by recommending approval for the Wests' proposal. "That's what gave the commission the most heartburn, creating an open space like that," she says. But she was finally persuaded by the fact that in restoring the three arched-window shapes apparently there 100 years ago, trumped the fact they were part of a recessed balcony less than strictly adherent to the original use.

The Wests' project will make the building look, from a distance at least, something like it did a century ago. But it will do so at the expense of some original facade brick—and of wedging a residential-style amenity into a historically commercial building. The project suggests a minor schism in the preservationist community.

"I was supportive of it in a cautious kind of way, with a lot of conditions on it," Graybeal says. She had suggested a sort of compromise, what she calls "Jeffersonian windows" that could be folded back, making it balcony-like sometimes, but not all the time. "They did not want to explore that," says Graybeal. "They held out for this, and finally they got it."

Although the balcony is the one part of the public space that's not associate with the building's main attraction, the stage, it seemed essential to the Wests. "We'll have a great jungle of flowers, and people will say, wow, that is beautiful! Let's go up there!" Scott West says, adding that he gets annoyed when travel writers come to Knoxville only to make a big deal of restaurants and stores based elsewhere. "I want a place where you cannot go into a chain, because our place is cooler!"

The Wests' proposal passed the Sept. 19 meeting of the Historic Zoning Commission unanimously, but Graybeal acknowledges it was eased by virtue of the fact that two outspoken opponents weren't present for the meeting of the nine-member board.

Scott West sees it as a flexible nightclub/event space, competing with Barley's and the Square Room—but with heavy wood, iron chandeliers, tapestries ("really Goth, really 13th century") and, like the lamented World Grotto, the Wests' unique basement experiment of the last decade, more than four tons of crystals embedded in the walls.

And it'll be no-smoking. Scott West suspects that allowing smoking on Preservation Pub's first floor may have driven away some of his original customers, who included big-shot developers and politicians. "Scruffy City Hall is the 2013 version of what Preservation Pub was in 2003," he says.