S&W Salvation

Empty for 27 years and repeatedly slated for demolition, downtown's only deco wonder marks a turning point in Knoxville preservation

What was announced this week is the urban-planning equivalent to a fairy-tale ending for an iconic building whose future has been in doubt for at least 20 years.

John Craig, the lead partner of a group of investors known as 500 Block LLC, which also includes developers Mike Hatcher and Tim Hill and publisher Dane Baker, with assistance from architect Faris Eid, announced on Tuesday tenants for the S&W, vacant these 27 years, and a neighboring building. The building's in the early stages of a $4 million renovation, and if all goes well, this time next year, the old S&W will look astonishingly like it did before its closing in 1981—but it will be occupied by a new restaurant called the S&W Grand Cafe, run by a family already well known for a West Knoxville restaurant, the Northshore Brasserie, an upscale French restaurant run by the Balest family.

Their Gay Street project won't be a cafeteria, but with a philosophy of high-volume, moderately priced food service, it will share some qualities with the S&W, including, as near as is possible with modern materials, its interior decor, most of which had long ago been damaged or removed. Restaurateur Stephanie Balest says the menu will include updated versions of dishes in old S&W menus from the '30s through the '50s.

Also announced this week is that an old Victorian building nearby, vacant for years, will host a company called Coolato Gelato, run by entrepreneurs Allen and Cherryl Meuret, a not-quite-retired couple who moved to Knoxville from points north about five years ago. Like the Balests, they're newcomers—Cherryl used to be a designer for Donald Trump, and has run a bakery in Chicago. Besides gelato, which they say is based on recipes from Italy, where the Meurets frequently visit, they'll serve espresso, pastries, and panini; the plan is to be open at 7 a.m. until midnight every day. They hope to open as early as March. The two floors above them will house two architectural design firms.

Coolato is in a ca. 1890s building known in developers' shorthand as the WROL building. It served as the studio of that legendary radio station for only a few years in the 1930s, when Roy Acuff was beginning his paradigm-shifting career in popular music with live broadcasts there. It's not as long as the other buildings, and features an unexpected bonus to the whole project: an unusual courtyard in back, accessed by a new—at least, new to almost anybody living—passageway from the sidewalk which existed a century ago, as disclosed by demolition and Craig's research. In all, about 60 percent of the property is leased. Craig expects the remaining 40 percent, including the basement of the S&W and parts of two smaller buildings adjacent to it, to be a mix of retail and office space, though he has not ruled out residential. (Conversion Properties is in charge of leasing.)

It's mainly a private project, but its complicated financing is the biggest reason for the long delay in this week's announcement, anticipated since the opening of the Regal Riviera in September 2007. In the final mix, Craig says, the bulk of the $4 million bill came through construction lending and the group's own investments, but that tax-credit equity covers about 20 percent of the total, with a loan tied to tax-increment financing helping with an additional 15 percent. A Central Business Improvement District facade grant accounts for a little more than 1 percent of the total. At the press conference on Tuesday, Craig called it "one of the most complex financing deals ever seen in this city."

However, money was just one hurdle; Craig credits Mayor Bill Haslam's administration and the preservationist group Knox Heritage for assuring that there would be a building to preserve. Four years ago, the S&W and its neighbors were slated to be demolished because it was considered to be in the way of the Regal Riviera project.

Basic construction is by Jim Hickman, a company with a good deal of experience in renovations—supervisor Jim Buhl has worked on other successful projects, including the unusual Crown & Goose pub, opened earlier this year on Central Street. Contrary to some gloomy early estimates of the building's soundness, Buhl reports that the brick walls and terrazzo floor of the old building were in excellent shape, much better than some other buildings he's worked on. They expect to be completed in the spring, by April or May, whereupon the Balests will begin moving in, with hopes of opening the big new restaurant in September 2009.

JOHN CRAIG, who in his association with Segundo Properties has led the renovation of several downtown properties in the last five years, including the multi-use Bliss Home building on Market Square and the Gallery Lofts above Mast General Store, gave us a tour of the old cafeteria this week. The building has been hollowed out, stripped down to the brick walls and, on one side, to the original ceiling. It's surprising, and a little eerie that much of what we can see right now is actually pre-S&W: high in the wall, "joist pockets" for a floor removed when the S&W was built in 1937, and, on the third floor in the southern half of the building, original skylights which were obscured by translucent glass when the S&W was here. The elegant staircase, its railing gone but its 19 steps still held in place by a long curve of iron pipes, is still sturdy. With a few exceptions, like the steps of that staircase, the S&W will be entirely rebuilt, based on North Carolina architect M.E. Boyer's original 1937 plans, which Craig located in Charlotte, N.C.

Craig says they even went to the Evansville, Ill., headquarters of the International Revolving Door Co., which manufactured the S&W's original revolving door, to make a new one just like it. Old customers with photographic memories may remember that some of the mezzanine wall covering was composed of oyster shells, shaved almost translucently thin. Craig found a place in Malaysia that still makes them. And, believe it or not, they've gotten some unexpected consulting advice from a 92-year-old carpenter named Von Garrett who actually worked on building the original, as a carpenter's apprentice, in 1937.

However, much of the expense involved is wrapped up in bringing the buildings up to 21st-century codes, including handicapped access and a four-floor elevator, an amenity the original S&W never had.

"We wouldn't be walking down these stairs right now if not for Bill Haslam," Craig says. The group has owned the building for a couple of years, with an eye to renovate the building with city help, but until this past May most of the work on it has been on paper. The financing of the project, Craig says, has been "too complicated for a story in the Financial Times." Craig credits Knox Heritage and especially the Haslam administration for making it possible.

While Craig calls it "the right thing to do," and, especially in taking advantage of tax credits and other inducements, the project looks like a good business plan, he admits he's motivated partly by nostalgia. "Some of my earliest memories are of eating at the S&W," he says, as he shows off the now-bare mezzanine floor. "When I was a kid, this was the fanciest place in town. I remember the guys who would help you with your trays. For a kid, 6 or 7 years old, those guys were rock stars. They were the coolest guys ever."

Several involved say something similar. Mike Hatcher remembers getting his first baseball glove at the Athletic House, which was in the building next door; so, for that matter, does Mayor Bill Haslam, who is universally credited with preventing the building's demolition in 2005.

OVER THE LAST TWO DECADES, the S&W has developed a reputation as a sort of preservationist's Moby Dick—large, elusive, dangerous, troublesome, spawning obsessions and leaving lots of wrecked dreams in its wake. Just in the last 10 years, experienced architects have studied the 1937 S&W Cafeteria building on Gay Street and assessed its renovation, variously, as structurally improbable, prohibitively expensive, and absolutely essential.

The importance of a cafeteria building that's been empty for 27 years may require some explanation. The S&W was a chain, sure enough. Based in Charlotte, it was a self-styled "uptown boarding house" devised by two former World War I mess sergeants, Frank Sherrill and Fred Webber. Sherrill had been impressed with a Los Angeles phenomenon called the "cafeteria," a futuristic, mechanistically efficient eating place little known in the East. In 1920 they started what would be a chain of more than a dozen restaurants in several southeastern states and the District of Columbia. They opened their first Knoxville branch next to the brand-new Tennessee Theatre in 1928, and moved into this much-bigger space, using the old brick walls of an adjacent bank and mercantile establishment, in 1937.

Unlike any chain restaurant built after World War II, the S&W was built to impress: more than 30,000 square feet across four floors of dining space, a couple of them connected by a grand spiral staircase, with marble, granite, bronze, and exotic woods, and, out front, a moderne architectural finish that made it stand out among Gay Street's dour brick buildings. Its architecture, an apparently unique rendition of Egyptian-influenced art deco in terra cotta and bronze, made it the most startlingly distinctive building on the street in mid-20th century Knoxville, and earned some distinction nationally, too, with a feature story in Restaurant Management Magazine in 1938.

Almost instantly it became an institution. Approximately 2,000 dined at the S&W every day, and its famous double line often started outside on the sidewalk. A nickname for the S&W was the Stand and Wait, but few minded it much. Among the S&W's regulars were some legendary Knoxville personalities, newspapermen like Carson Brewer and Bert Vincent, historically influential conservationists Carlos Campbell and Harvey Broome, legendary Judge Robert Taylor and maverick attorney John R. Neal; not to mention whatever country-music legends might have made their ways in here, considering that the S&W's heyday was also the heyday of live radio in downtown Knoxville; or TVA brass in the days when the agency was rewiring the entire region. Knoxville families made the S&W a part of their routine: A special night once a week or once a month would likely include a movie and dinner at the S&W. It looked fancy, and was, in many ways, but its volume permitted it to be cheap, too, with meals that were rarely more than an hourly wage.

Old S&W menus remind us of what we used to eat: grilled liver and bacon; pork knuckles and sauerkraut; cream of asparagus soup. It was not your typical chain restaurant. The regional delicacy known as the ramp is still a rarity in restaurants, but many Knoxvillians experienced ramps for the first time in a scrambled-egg recipe at the S&W, ca. 1951.

Live music was as much part of the S&W experience as mashed potatoes and cartoons for kids; Mme. Lois Harris played show tunes on the organ near the staircase. It thrived for about 40 years, serving breakfast, lunch, and supper. Downtown shriveled in the 1970s, especially as movie theaters closed, suburban malls opened, and downtown was no longer an evening destination for families. In 1977, the S&W closed for supper and on weekends. In August, 1981, unexpectedly, the management in North Carolina, now run by the son of the founder, unexpectedly closed it utterly. Many protested the timing, not nine months before the opening of a World's Fair a few blocks away, but John Sherrill said it was obvious that downtowns across the country were "going to fast food."

The building reopened to the public at least once, one night in October 1987, for a big fashion show, thick with nostalgic appeal, and it may have drawn some interest in the place. Over the next few years, at least eight proposals to reopen the building rose and fell. The most publicized was a giant health club run by Baptist Health Systems, announced as a fait accompli in 1988. But it didn't work. Developer Ron Watkins, who had performed other preservationist wonders, like the Pembroke, one of downtown's first upscale residential conversions, admitted he didn't think it could be done. His company stripped much of the S&W's famous original interior furnishings for use in new projects elsewhere.

THE S&W WAS ON ARCHITECTURAL DEATH ROW for most of the last 10 years, slated for demolition for a number of different projects with nothing in common except that they insisted on the necessity of tearing down the S&W. First, it was in the way of an expansively imagined county justice center. Architects who wanted to save the S&W offered alternate proposals for the project, but the county was stubborn on the matter. They didn't give up the prospect of tearing down the S&W until they gave up building a new justice center altogether.

Later, some downtown boosters floated the idea of coaxing a cinema to build downtown specifically as a way to save most of the S&W, perhaps as an especially grand lobby. Preservationist purists saw the appeal as a compromise, not as good as saving the place intact for reuse as a restaurant, but certainly better than nothing.

However, Regal's theater architects had a look at the layout and decided to tear down the S&W—citing the awkwardness of building a multiplex around it, as well as structural and codes issues that made its salvation improbable.

As recently as early 2005, the landmark cafeteria was still officially bound for the dump. However, Knox Heritage, led by director Kim Trent and president Finbarr Saunders—he has since been elected to County Commission—urged the Haslam administration to give them some time to come up with an alternate plan. Saunders says Regal refused to meet with them, or to consider alternate plans. But after hearing their case, Mayor Haslam, who had been a major booster of the Regal Riviera, both as mayor and as a major financial supporter, persuaded Regal to delay construction long enough for the S&W's champions to come up with another solution.

With Haslam's willingness to put off the cinema project for a few months, Knox Heritage, led by architect Randall DeFord, proposed alternate plans which would offer Regal the space it needed but preserve the S&W; Faris Eid ultimately fleshed out plans that would allow both projects to proceed. Several credit Haslam staffer Bill Lyons with keeping Regal in the game during those tense days. After some discussion, Regal relented and agreed to build its eight-screen cineplex on a different design, beside and behind the S&W.

A group known as 500 Block LLC, originally including developer John Craig, architect Faris Eid, and Wayne Blasius, bought the property for $527,625. It was just the beginning of a more protracted effort to find suitable tenants and a financing plan, along with discussions with the city over the terms of the contract and what the meaning of "as is" was: The city finally finished a new roof on the building. Meanwhile, as conflicting rumors about tenants made the rounds of downtown bars, the Regal Riviera opened with all-new construction next to the S&W's empty old hulk in September 2007.

Idealistic about the place, John Craig was reportedly particular about who he wanted to run the S&W. Well-founded rumors linked more than one noted restaurateur to the project—but months passed, and no announcement came. Craig had been in talks with other prospects before he met a woman who showed up as the sole unfamiliar face at a Knox Heritage event: Stephanie Balest, co-owner of the Northshore Brasserie. She and her brother Brian opened that well-regarded French restaurant in West Knoxville four years ago, and have frequently heard people plead with them to open a location downtown. They hesitated, concerned that they might split the market.

When John Craig came at her with the usual plea, she responded, innocent of the implications, "Everybody says that," she said. "But the only place I'd be interested in is the S&W." Craig responded, "Maybe I can help you with that."

Balest, who grew up in a restaurant family in Pittsburgh, had lived in the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain, and worked in a restaurant in Charleston, S.C., when her Belgian-born husband got a job that involved spending a lot of time at a factory in Harriman. "I just flew in to kind of check [Knoxville] out," four years ago. "I totally fell in love with that building." She claims the empty S&W, with none of the memories shared by a couple of generations—or knowledge that it was likely to be torn down—was one of the reasons she was interested in moving to Knoxville. When her brother-partner Brian arrived, though, he was uncertain about the business climate downtown, and persuaded her to open a restaurant on the western fringe. Northshore Brasserie turned out to be a big success. Even there, though, people would talk about the S&W.

"I can't believe that no one from here has done this project," she says. "The way people talk about the S&W, their faces light up. They say, ‘I went there with my grandparents, I got married there, I watched cartoons there.' They even remember Slim," the tall, slender waiter who worked there for decades.

Last year, she says, Craig—without knowing about the depth of her interest in the building—asked her if she'd be interested. "It was crazy," she says of the coincidence. "He said, ‘We want someone who will do it justice.'"

"I wasn't looking to do another restaurant," she says. "But if we were going to go downtown, we wanted to do it the right way." Upon seeing the interior of the S&W, her first impression was, "It's huge!" The Brasserie is just about 3,500 square feet. "We thought, what are we going to do with this thing? But every time we go in, it gets smaller and smaller." They won't be using the basement, where most of the original S&W's cooking was done; their kitchen will be on the street level.

500 Block LLC and the Balests developed their relationship last year, and despite a stray rumor or two, kept it a secret for a long time. Without everything signed, and while 500 Block was still working out a few nagging details about the sale with the city, construction began in earnest in May with interior demolition.

The large group that gathered in the chill of a Tuesday morning in Krutch Park for the official announcement seemed almost giddy about the resolution. Some were even weeping. Knox Heritage director Kim Trent was not one of those, but she was obviously pleased. "It's important as a turning point for preservation in general," she says, praising Haslam, Craig, Eid, DeFord, Lyons, attorney Tom McAdams, and John Leith-Tetrault, president of the National Trust, who helped broker some new market tax credits for the project, involving a deft swap of credits with another project in St. Louis.

As a result of all the work, Coolato's is set to open in March, with an ambitious all-day, all-night schedule, 7 a.m. to midnight daily. The S&W Grand Cafe will open in September, and will serve lunch and dinner. Balest says entrees will range roughly from $5 sandwiches to $25 prime rib. Shane Robertson, the much-admired current chef at the Brasserie, will serve as executive chef overseeing both the Balests' restaurants; a sous-chef will govern daily operations at each.

Both restaurant families mention the theater market, both the movies and the historic theaters, as among their most likely clientele. "Right now, there's no place to go after a concert that lets out at 10," notes Allen Meuret. He hopes they'll come in for an espresso or a panini.

And both families seem defiant about the economy, and downtown competition. In the approximately two years since Meuret first conceived Coolato Gelato for the long-term site, two ice-cream parlors have opened on nearby Market Square, one specializing in Italian ice, and at least two other restaurants have begun offering ice cream on occasion. "Gelato is different," she says. "Gelato is healthy for you to eat."

Balest talks about the momentum of downtown, which seems on a course contrary to the recession. She remarked at Tuesday's press conference that downtown didn't seem ready for such a large project four years ago—but she thinks it will work now. "All the progress downtown is making, the residential, all these factors, the cinema, Ashley [Capps] bringing in these great events, all these things considered, we thought, ‘We can do this.'

"Even in a recession, at the end of the day, people need to eat," says Balest. It may be worth noting that the original S&W opened, grandly, in the middle of the worst depression in history, and did pretty well.