A Hard Lesson: The Saga of the McClung Warehouses Comes to a Close. But What Did These Buildings Mean to Knoxville?

The term "McClung Warehouses" was always a bit of a misnomer to begin with. It got picked up by the press and the public, and became what we've all called the grand old brick buildings on West Jackson Avenue. But these were more than warehouses.

One of Knoxville's biggest wholesale firms during the city's boom years of the late 19th and early 20th century, the C.M. McClung Co. had warehouses, sure enough. They were over on Dale Avenue and Humes Street. What the company built of towering brick on West Jackson Avenue was their main headquarters: the executive suites, the salesmen's offices, the mailroom, training rooms where they taught men how to lay tile or install refrigerators, and lots of showrooms—including sample rooms, and even model hardware stores—stocked entirely with McClung's wares.

McClung was long a conspicuous symbol of Knoxville's booming industrial era. More recently, it was a symbol of something different, the potential crown on downtown's preservation-fueled revival. After two horrific fires, there will be no trace of it.

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A century ago, McClung's advertisements touted its "three and a half acres of floor space." Hundreds of people worked in these buildings, and thousands of customers visited every week. The large regional firm was known throughout several states, and buyers from hardware and appliance stores, mills, mines, some from hundreds of miles away would arrive, often on the Southern passenger train, and behold the latest American innovations.

McClung sold "hardware," but that word might sound as limited as the word "warehouse." McClung carried lanterns, glassware, pots and pans, clocks, automobile tires, cash registers, bicycles, harmonicas, corn poppers, croquet sets, telephones, shotguns, footballs, ox shoes, baby jumpers, lawn mowers, butter churns, buggy whips, wheelbarrows, spectacles, rat traps. They sold phonographs and phonograph records. For a time they even sold replacement bodies for Ford Model T's. Have a wreck, back around 1920, you don't need a body shop. Just order a new Ford body from McClung, 500 pounds' worth, for $67.

The company sold mostly goods manufactured elsewhere, big brand-name products, but McClung manufactured some goods themselves, like stoves from their own local stove foundry.

By World War I, McClung estimated they were carrying 40,000 separate varieties of merchandise in all. If you bought a different McClung item every day, it would keep you busy for 109 years.

Last week, city officials voiced some concern over the likelihood there might be fire-retardant asbestos in the insulation of a building that old. In fact, at one time McClung carried asbestos, a dozen different varieties of it.

And McClung was once the region's leading supplier of fire extinguishers.

The C.M. McClung company was a successor to a much-older wholesale firm, the Cowan, McClung Co., which had roots going back to 1820. Calvin Morgan McClung (1855-1919) was the Yale-educated scion of Knoxville's most prominent merchant family. Calvin McClung studied chemistry in college, and as a businessman got involved in banking and cotton, among other things. But his passion was history. McClung became known as a historian and collector. When his widow bestowed his collection to the public library, it was the kernel of a historical collection that outlasted his businesses.

The public library's McClung Collection bears his name, and an oil portrait of C.M. McClung hangs in the main lobby. In mustache and spectacles, hair parted in the middle, he looks like a character you see in old Westerns, the innocent city slicker who shows up in Dodge City on the stage. (The University of Tennessee's McClung Museum and McClung Tower are named for two other members of the long-prominent family.)

C.M. McClung was no gunfighter, but dominated in a competitive business. Just 27 when he bought controlling interest in the family company, he guided it to a regional dominance undreamed of by his forebears. And during his lifetime, his company only grew. He planted a building on West Jackson Avenue in 1893, the year of the "panic," a year that scotched several building projects, and ruined several Knoxville wholesale houses, including the Carhart company, whose name is still visible on a building today, just a block away on Jackson. But McClung survived it and thrived, and in the next 25 years, the complex doubled, tripled, and quadrupled in size, reflecting its growing business.

As Calvin McClung was driving his business, his much-younger brother, Lee "Bum" McClung, was becoming one of America's first national college football stars, as halfback for Yale. He was the only football star to become U.S. Treasurer. Surely thousands of U.S. dollar bills that exchanged hands at the C.M. McClung Co. in the early 20th century had Lee McClung's signature on them.

West Jackson, downtown's newest street, was a perfect place, for the practical purpose that they did much of their shipping via Southern Railway's freight network, and their first couple of generations of customers, buyers from outlying cities and towns, often arrived on the train. But the buildings also served as advertising, in those days when some 30 passenger trains a day came through, bearing people from all over the country. Every day, thousands of passengers who never set foot in Knoxville nonetheless got a good look at McClung's huge buildings and his company's name in big letters on their sides.

Calvin McClung died in 1919. The building torn down this week was the last one he witnessed built in his lifetime.

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The C.M. McClung Co. remained a major business for half a century after its founder's death. In the 1960s, after they'd added televisions and La-Z Boy chairs to their inventory, they seemed to be expanding again, for a moment, when they bought the Crane building, adjacent to the McClung plant to the west. But McClung went out of business in 1970. The big buildings stood vacant for just a little while, before they were occupied by some similar businesses—practical businesses, appliance dealers and the like—but they were probably never fully occupied as they had been during the McClung era.

In 1974, the fledgling preservationist group that became Knox Heritage described them: The oldest building "boasts extremely clean and sharp brickwork. This massive tower of brick would present a somber, fortress-like impression were it not for the unique fenestration. The many-tiered effect that is obtained by thoughtful placement of pilasters, windows, and arches, together with the light stone trim, suggests an Italianate appearance...." The 1903 addition was believed to be unique in Knoxville for its liberal use of glass. "A close examination of other Knoxville buildings of the period would probably reveal that nothing similar exists."

For years after that, few paid much attention. West Jackson was not on anyone's beaten path, and most people knew the buildings mainly as they looked from the interstate, big buildings with busted windows, dirty with the soot of long-ago trains. After some demolitions of some smaller buildings nearby, the McClung buildings seemed ever more rare as representatives of a city's growth and as a vanishing collage of American architecture. From the ground on Jackson Avenue, the oldest building showed the rare exuberance of the early 1890s, the height of the "Richardsonian Romanesque" period represented by Sullivan's Saloon, the Century Building on Gay, and very few other buildings. But adjacent to that, in the same complex, were three or four different articulations of the more practical but still graceful designs of the early 20th century.

The Old City revived in the 1980s, well east of Gay Street, in buildings of about the same era as McClung's, and on the same street, but the energy didn't carry all the way down Jackson. That long, final, western block of West Jackson was still partly industrial, and right by the region's busiest homeless shelter.

By the 1990s, the buildings were empty, and were perhaps considered to be a liability. In early 1993, Mark Saroff, a young would-be developer, bought them from Consumer Wholesale Inc. There may have been other considerations, but the public records indicate the sale price to have been $1.

The transaction got little attention at the time. With only a couple of exceptions, several blocks away, downtown was not considered a place to live. That part of downtown, in particular, was especially dingy. Even the nearby 100 block of Gay was mostly vacant and badly run down, with only Saturday-morning breakfasts at Harold's Deli suggesting that Knoxville had any interest in that quarter.

A short, happy, likeable, almost childlike guy who might remind one of Lou Costello, Saroff proceeded with his plans, and impressed some with the complexity of the financial package he was trying to line up for his project. Saroff promised affordable housing, using federal credits. Over the next several years, Saroff worked with architects and contractors. Some liked and trusted him personally, some didn't, but almost everyone who dealt with Saroff eventually found him unpredictable and frustrating. Knox Heritage offered to help, but could never get Saroff to cooperate.

By 2000, seasoned developers like Leigh Burch and David Dewhirst, sometimes with out-of-state financing, were proving things could be done with big buildings like the Sterchi and the Emporium, which both became upscale residential buildings with government-assisted financing. Other buildings on the once-woebegone 100 block of Gay seemed headed for mixed-use success, too.

For the first time, developing the McClung buildings no longer seemed like a pipe dream, but it was still a rehabilitation project on a scale beyond anything that had been attempted so far, and city officials and other developers were convinced Saroff's numbers weren't working.

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Saroff entered partnerships with experienced developers, including Dewhirst, and embarked on agreements to develop the buildings, only to abandon the contracts, sometimes minutes before signing. In 2002, the Victor Ashe administration declared the block an "emergency," and proposed a Jackson Avenue Redevelopment District, which would have permitted the prospect of acquiring property there and elsewhere in a broad district by eminent domain.

Though Saroff did some substantial interior work on the buildings, like polishing the maple floors, city officials as well as KCDC officials made public statements that Saroff had not shown he had the financial wherewithal to finish the huge project.

What happened, and didn't happen, over the next five years, would fill a dense book, one that would make a tedious and frustrating read. In 2005, Knox County government announced it was going to auction off Saroff's the buildings for payment of six years of back taxes. Then they didn't.

That "redevelopment" designation prompted a lawsuit by Saroff, who alleged the designation itself made it harder for him to finish his dream. The city backed off, and never pushed the eminent-domain button, and even tendered public offers of tax-increment financing, though with the routine financial requirements few believed Saroff was able to meet. Saroff, going through a divorce, was reported to be on the verge of foreclosure.

By 2006, Saroff had become a darling of the burgeoning neo-conservative movement, appearing at Take Back the Government rallies and presented on talk radio as a hero of property rights. Sure, it had been 13 years without much progress, but he was proceeding at his own personal pace, and no government should interfere. Rep. Stacey Campfield was a particular champion of Saroff's cause, and in March, 2006, introduced state legislation that would have protected Saroff from eminent-domain intrusion. Campfield called Saroff a "poster child" for property rights in the face of eminent domain.

In February, 2007, Saroff's buildings caught fire. In terms of ruining square footage, it may have been the biggest fire downtown since 1897. Completely destroyed were three distinct McClung buildings, including the oldest, largest, and most elaborate of them.

While battling the blaze, firemen were seriously injured, and a million-dollar fire truck was destroyed. Fire rained damage on buildings and cars across the neighborhood. Among the buildings destroyed was the one not owned by Saroff, which housed Ernie Gross' specialty woodworking shop.

Saroff called it arson, but no clear cause or culprit was ever determined, and an investigation disclosed one curious detail: The buildings' sprinkler system had been disabled.

Only two buildings remained, two of the newer ones, including the plainest of the McClung buildings, a 1911 addition—plus the 1920s Crane building that had been added to the cluster. Saroff remained in control of those remaining buildings, and for at least a year was sometimes seen doing work on the site.

In 2010, Saroff's debts forced him into involuntary bankruptcy. It seemed obvious that it was only a matter of time before the city would acquire the buildings. But the trustee took longer than preservationists and city staffers expected. One mayoral administration ended, then another.

With the promise of an imminent change in ownership, the McClung block of Jackson Avenue has recently seen more new development—office, retail, and especially residential—than any other part of downtown. Today, more than 100 people live on the block, probably more than at any time in the history of what was originally a practical industrial block with only a few working-class residences.

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It was not until June 2013, 20 years after Saroff had bought this property he never found a way to develop, that the city acquired it, not by the politically dreaded resource of eminent domain, but by sale, $1.45 million, including a settlement, a portion not spelled out, according to city officials, of Saroff's lawsuit.

"When we were finally able to purchase the property," says Mayor Madeline Rogero, "we were very excited about the potential to preserve the buildings that were left, and moved as quickly as we could to secure them." But people continued to get in. The fire marshal says there's no way to prevent that without a round-the-clock guard.

On the morning of Saturday, Feb. 1, less than three months after the city obtained the title, a fire broke out in the arch-windowed old Crane building.

The saga of the last years makes for an interesting political debate. Invocation of eminent domain would have compromised one citizens' property rights, but it may have saved the buildings, and moreover may have saved the city taxpayer more than $2 million, the estimated bill for cleaning up the damage.

"It's unfortunate the city wasn't able to take action sooner," Rogero says. "But I'm not going to judge what happened in the past. Hindsight's always 20-20. You want to give a property owner every opportunity to do the right thing. But when property has been blighted, government has to take action." She says property owners' rights will always be a major consideration. "There's a reason why we work with property owners to provide incentives," she says. But will have to be weighed against the rights of neighboring property owners, and especially public safety.

Of the 2007 fire, she says, "That cost the taxpayer a lot of money. And three firefighters were injured."

She responds to criticism that the $1.45 million the city paid for the property last year was wasted, but says that was actually fortunate. If the most recent fire, which raised questions about the structural stability of the last remaining building, had happened a few years ago, when Saroff or his bankruptcy trustee still controlled the property, securing the block and reopening West Jackson Avenue to traffic could have been a protracted mess. Instead, the city's able to act, and take care of the main concerns in a few days.

But what is it worth now?

"It's still a prime piece of property," Rogero says, with one unusual advantage. "We do own the parking lot there. The Standard, Sanders Pace, Southeastern Glass is there. And we're kind of running out of space downtown. We'll see that the interest is. It may not pan out immediately. It could be a pretty major development, or there may be pieces of it developed at various points in time."

And now, after 120 years of industry and expansion, abandonment and blight, passion and frustration, and two of the worst fires in Knoxville memory, there's nothing but a steep bank by a railroad yard, and rubble. Whether there's a moral to the story may be a matter of political perspective.