Tailor Lofts, Retailored: An Early Tour of Conversion's Conversion of "the Arby's Building"

Preservationist developers lament that they're rapidly running out of old downtown buildings to renovate. Joe Petre's Conversion Properties is reducing that dwindling number by one. A well-known real-estate broker, Petre has just lately turned preservationist developer. His company was behind the unusual Southeastern Glass mixed-used residential building at Jackson and Broadway, and Conversion is now converting a building at Gay and Union into a combination of retail space on the street level and a total of nine roomy apartments in the floors above. Construction will start soon, and it should be ready for tenants in about a year.

The three-story corner building doesn't jump out at you. It's of a plainer style and shorter cut than its neighbors on this block dominated by grander edifices of the turn-of-the-century era. People tend to call 430 S. Gay St. "the Arby's Building." The Tom Johnson family, who introduced Arby's to Knoxville, ran an Arby's restaurant in here for 35 years, ending two years ago. The Johnsons are still the local operators of Arby's; Tom's son John Johnson and his wife Janie own the building, and intend to live in it someday.

Arby's 35-year era is almost geological by Knoxville-restaurant standards, but hardly accounts for a quarter of the history of this building. So rather than "Arby's Building," the new term "Tailor Lofts" strikes developers as fitting. The second floor was long home to a well-known tailor shop—the windows still herald "Slomski Tailor," in big yellow letters, and Dale Slomski wasn't the first one.

The building's bigger than it looks. Each of the upper two floors offers more than 3,000 square feet, bigger than the average suburban house, with very high ceilings, up to 16 feet. It's also older than it looks. A 1920s modernization swaddled its front corner in lighter brick and squarer design, but look behind it, along Union, and you see the tall, arched windows of the 19th century. The building dates back to about 1876, which makes it one of the four or five oldest buildings still standing on Gay Street. It was an unlikely survivor of the worst fire in Knoxville history, the fatal 1897 inferno that leveled the rest of its block, beyond Wall Avenue. On the 400 block, comparative sizes tell a story. When its taller, post-fire neighbors were built, a generation later, Knoxville was a much-bigger city, with a need for bigger buildings.

In 1876, baseball fans did not cheer its construction. It was built on part of what had been Knoxville's first baseball diamond. But here the pharmaceutical business Sanford, Chamberlain, and Albers thrived, moving into bigger quarters on State in the 1920s, eventually evolving into the major wholesale concern known as Albers Drugs. Later, their old Gay Street building was home to Spence Shoes, named for owner Cary Spence, an athletic champion in his youth, a World War I general in middle age, one of the heroes of the era. He was in charge of the business until 1943, when he drowned during a fishing trip on the Little T.

Petre associate Daniel Odle showed us around. Up the long flights of old stairs are the upper floors, thousands of square feet unused for decades. There and in the Union-level semi-basement, they'll be establishing nine roomy studio apartments. "They'll be open lofts," Odle says. "We're trying to do something a little bit different," he says, making each apartment one big, open room, "New York style."

They'll break down into seven one-bedroom units, one two-bedroom unit, and one three-bedroom unit. The upper floors have windows on three sides, offering unusual exposure, by downtown standards.

Petre hasn't yet settled on what they'll charge, but he promises it'll be competitive with whatever downtown rental units are going for in 2014.

In all, they're spending about $2.5 million on the renovation. The biggest challenge, Petre says, has been coordinating financing. For 14 decades, the building has finessed fires, riots, and other emergencies with only one stairway, but modern codes requires a second stairway and an elevator. "Our challenges are codes-specific," says Petre, "and that creates financial challenges." With lots of figuring, they've worked out a matrix of financing from private funds, historic tax credits, the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, and a Central Business Improvement District grant for the facade. "It's very complicated," says Petre, as he makes a game stab at explaining it to a reporter.

A walk around the upper floors—some rooms have solid doors more than 2 inches thick and 16-17-foot ceilings, some with original stamped-tin decor—invokes some mysteries. In the middle of the third floor is what appears to be a forgotten recording studio: a small soundproof room with old-fashioned acoustical tiles and a small window to another room, perhaps for a producer. The room intrigued Petre, whose father ran a small radio station in Blount County. Brad Reeves of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound has learned there was a broadcasting school in the building in the late '40s. Whatever it was, it won't be preserved in the building's design, which will emphasize openness.

On the same floor, another room offers a remnant of textured wallpaper, an elaborately lush Victorian design with tropical birds. It won't be preserved, either, except perhaps as an artifact. They may try to save some stamped-tin ceilings, but Odle admits they probably won't be able to save much of them. They have perhaps bigger problems, as exhibited the rainy day we visited, when a stream of water was pouring through the roof into an overflowing garbage barrel. Fortunately it's a fairly new leak and has caused little damage. It's since been fixed.

Some of the building's best surviving detail is in that ground-floor fast-food space, hidden behind the dropped ceiling: some elaborate plaster work and a translucent-glass transom high in the front. The original 11-foot high windows along the southern exposure will also be restored, making for an open restaurant space with a lot of natural light.

Conversion's working with McCarty Holsaple McCarty, and lead architect John Thurman, a young associate with that venerable firm. "I used to eat at Arby's, and always thought it was the longest space for a little restaurant," Thurman says, adding that the walk back to the door might help work off your meal. "It's so long, so narrow."

The firm's known for new and modern construction; Thurman talks about maximizing light as much as any modernist does. Their renovation will bring more light into the building, especially on the Gay Street level. "I think the light's gonna be really nice in that space," he says. The upstairs windows, which begin only 10-18 inches from the floor, are extraordinarily tall.

Outside, they'll be removing the 1970s stonework, but not taking it all the way back to the 1870s; the tan-brick 1920s rebuild of the front will stay. "What people weren't seeing at Arby's is a lot of transom glass," Thurman says. To the pedestrian, that may be the single most obvious result of their redo. Such details often don't survive a chain restaurant's practical standards. "I'm thankful they didn't tear that out," he says.

"It'll give a nice historical feel to the building," Thurman says. "It feels like it's in really good condition," he adds, especially compared to the neighboring J.C. Penney building he recently toured. ("There's a lot to do there," he deadpans.)

The ground-level retail space won't be cheap, about $22 per square foot, Petre says. "We'd love to do something other than a restaurant," he says, alluding to a general anxiety about other needs downtown. "But so far, the approaches have all been from restaurant operators." No names yet.