What's 'Historic'—And Who Says? Nine Practical Reasons To Save Old Buildings

"That's Not Historic!"

A lot of good and honest folks roll their eyes when they hear that adjective applied to a building they've never heard of. Angry anonymous bloggers leave posts, and old men grumble. A building can't be "historic" unless Davy Crockett was born there, George Washington slept there, or a Civil War battle involving at least moderate bloodshed was fought on the premises.

At this point, with the preservation-fueled revival of downtown bringing people, dollars, and uncustomary positive press to the city, the value of the community's limited stock of old buildings might seem obvious.

But last year, an East Knox County landowner destroyed a rare 1840s frame house on his property. It was the first time an antebellum house has been destroyed in Knox County in about 30 years. Then the University of Tennessee demolished three prewar buildings, including a century-old apartment building, with the intention of leveling another historic house nearby—just as the university contemplates the removal of three specifically historic Victorians in Fort Sanders. And downtown, where the neighborhood's surprising revival has taken place mostly in old buildings, St. John's Cathedral has announced its intentions to remove two early 20th-century buildings on Walnut Street, despite interest from developers who want to buy and renovate them. It would be the first demolition of intact historic buildings downtown in eight years.

What's historic, and worth saving, varies with the beholder, but some definition may be urgent. The National Park Service comes up with criteria by which buildings are nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, respecting buildings associated with significant people, events, architectural styles, and building practices. Put simply, "historic" generally means "old and worth the trouble." It applies to a building that's part of a community's tangible past. To a degree that might surprise cynics, old buildings also offer options for a community's future.

The term isn't used liberally. Of the tens of thousands of houses and buildings in Knox County, hardly one in 20 qualifies as "historic." How they keep ending up in the hands of people who don't like them is a puzzle.

Lots of folks are just sentimental about old buildings, of course, and there's nothing wrong with that. After a few decades, a building may have a human family in the thousands, with associations of which the owner is only vaguely aware. As people get older, they like to point to an old building and tell children, or grandchildren, We went on our first date there, or, Aunt Martha used to work there and always gave us coconut bon-bons. Eavesdroppers encounter those scenes on Gay Street almost every day. It's sweet, and for those with personal connections it's a large part of the value of downtown, maybe the value of Knoxville itself. But nostalgia is not the subject of this essay.

Some also like to stand in the place where history happened, and feel the resonance of long-ago events, even when it's not history that has yet caught the attention of Ken Burns. In Knoxville, people like to see the place where Major O'Conner and the Mabrys shot each other to death in 1882, in front of a recognizable building you can still point to because it's still there. Often we don't know buildings are associated with a significant person or event until many decades later, when some letters are released or a historian bothers to look some things up. Sometimes, as was the case with James Agee's home, buildings become famous right after they're torn down.

Heritage tourism has a strong appeal. But we're not necessarily talking about that here, either.

This article is about the value of old buildings—the practical value—and why preserving them is good for business, especially the business of a city.

1. Old buildings often have more intrinsic value.

Some value is obvious. Buildings of a certain era, namely pre-World War II, tend to be built with better materials, often more sturdily.

They include ingredients like certain hardwoods and especially heart pine, wood from old-growth forests that don't exist anymore. And they were built by different standards. A century-old building might be a better long-term bet than a brand new one is. West Knoxville's antebellum Walker-Sherrill House, which until City Council approved a zoning deal last week was threatened by development, will be reborn as an office building. If tornadoes strike West Knoxville, the Walker-Sherrill house, where the walls are five bricks thick, might be safer than most modern houses.

Then there's craftsmanship. Due to pre-union slave wages of former eras, a building more than a few decades old is likely to represent many more man-hours per square foot. Expert stonecutters and woodcarvers and metalworkers once worked cheap. They never got what they deserved, perhaps, but they left us value that can't be replaced for a comparable cost.

2. When you tear down an old building, you never know what you're doing.

A decade ago, the Daylight Building on Union Avenue was a drab eyesore, more and more vacant as the years went by. A developer bought it to tear it down and replace it with something new. Though Knox Heritage preservationists worked behind the scenes, the Daylight elicited no popular passion to save it. No one picketed. Columnists didn't protest. It going to be torn down, and no one was going to miss it much.

By the time a couple of different demolition scenarios fell through, the 1927 building was utterly vacant, and went up for sale again. Dewhirst Properties bought it and began renovation work. As random passers by hooted "Tear it down!", the building was revealing some secrets. The second-floor drop-ceilings concealed appealing heart-pine ceilings, concealed for unknown reasons, and a large clerestory. Then exterior paint removal brought more surprises: the front awning was adorned with unusual tinted "opalescent" glass. And the whole facade was lined with bright copper, thousands of dollars' worth, inexplicably painted a drab yellow all these years. It almost ended up in the landfill. Today, the Daylight houses four thriving retail businesses—Just Ripe is sometimes standing-room only—and its second floor of efficiency apartments has a waiting list.

An even more extreme example is a few blocks away. In 1974, the Bijou Theater, slated for demolition, was only 65 years old, today's equivalent of something built in 1948. A few old-timers remembered when it was new, and resented it being called "historic," a word they'd heard used mainly in connection with the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, some other war. Theaters weren't historic, anyway. Plans were to tear it down for parking.

Badly run down, the Bijou had been, for almost 10 years, a pornographic movie theater. When I was a cynical teenager, the word Bijou was always a setup for a dirty joke.

Hawhawhaw, we said. We laughed and laughed. You really want to save that nasty old joint? Historic? Seriously? Whatever.

Today, thanks to the group formed to save it—which became known as Knox Heritage—major entertainers perform to packed houses, several nights every month. Back when we talked about tearing it down, we hadn't heard about its universally impressive acoustics. Traveling musicians from around the world are awed by the Bijou's sound, sometimes remarking on it to the audience. In 2009, New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff called it "one of the best-sounding rooms I've experienced in this country." Meaning America.

Travelers rarely use superlatives to describe anything in Knoxville, but the Bijou, the place we ridiculed, now inspires them.

3. New Businesses need old buildings.

In 1961, scholar Jane Jacobs startled the urban-planning community with a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Dispassionately, without recognizable loyalty to anyone else's dogma, she described the qualities of cities that thrive and the qualities of cities that fail. The book opposed the strong currents of "urban renewal," but picked up converts. By the end of the century, it was being credited with inspiring a movement that would be known as "new urbanism."

Chapter 10, "The Need for Aged Buildings," was especially startling.

"Cities need old buildings so badly," Jacobs wrote, "it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them."

It was a right peculiar thing to say in 1961, the New Frontier, the year of Seattle's Space Needle, and the year Knoxville was tearing down much of its central city. Having just demolished our unusual Victorian Market House, the city was razing dozens of blocks wholesale, especially on downtown's east side. Demolishing the old and building anew seemed the answer to reviving downtown. It looked fresh and clean and suburban, at first: Market Square became a "mall" and Gay Street's "Promenade" promised to compete with the automobile-accessible stores of the mod suburbs.

A few months of excitement and fame were followed by a few decades of stagnation and decline. When downtown began to turn around, it happened mostly in old buildings.

What is it about random old buildings that's so damn important?

Jacobs observed that new buildings make sense for major chain stores and restaurants that can afford to build them. But many other sorts of businesses, especially small start-ups, thrive best in old buildings. Jacobs mentions that old buildings work better for bookstores, ethnic restaurants, antique stores, neighborhood pubs. But also some other things.

"As for really new ideas of any kind—no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be—there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error, and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction," she wrote. Then she added a kicker. "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

That sounds crazily counterintuitive, but the paradox finds new illustrations daily, some of them in ventures Jacobs could hardly have imagined, even here in Knoxville. One of Knoxville's most technologically daring businesses in the last 25 years was a state-of-the-art computer-game company called Cyberflix. It reached its peak of international success while headquartered in a building built for an early 20th-century wholesale grocer in then-half-deserted Market Square. In 1990, a talented immigrant with little financial backing opened an unusually innovative new restaurant in an inexpensive century-old building on the same square—with no dedicated parking, at that. The Tomato Head is probably Knoxville's most written-about restaurant of the last quarter century. It's now proving it can work on a strip mall in West Knoxville, but proprietor-chef Mahasti Vafaie affirms that she couldn't have started it if not for the availability of an inexpensive old building downtown.

Maybe it's not ironic that Market Square, established in 1854 and Knoxville's oldest commercial space, became our first Wi-Fi neighborhood.

The city's boldest new-music venue of the 21st century, with live shows almost nightly, is the Pilot Light, located in a plain prewar unrenovated commercial building. In fact, most of Knoxville's cutting-edge retailers have found their way in old buildings: the city's first espresso-era coffee shop, first gastropub, first Scottish pub, first cereal bar, first cigar lounge, first hookah bar, first no-smoking restaurant, first wine bar, first sushi restaurant, first tennis-shoe boutique, first brewpub, first crêperie, first gelato shop, all popped up in decades-old buildings built for other purposes. Considering how few of Knoxville's commercial buildings are really old, it's an astonishing ratio.

A half-century after Jacobs' insights, real-estate economist Donovan Rypkema cites new studies suggesting that the nation's fastest-growing businesses have fewer than 20 employees, and modern developers aren't building anything of an appropriate size to suit them. New construction emphasizes size. The average size of a historic commercial building is about 2,500 square feet, an ideal size, he says, for small-business incubation.

Last week I was privileged to visit the headquarters of JAOPRO, a young high-tech video company becoming known for its high-definition cinematic approach to action scenes, especially wakeboarding and other outdoor sports, for television. Somehow they've found themselves in a quirky old building on Gay Street. Their workspace has an old-fashioned mezzanine and 130-year-old weathered brick walls and a wooden-plank bridge to the sidewalk. They're there partly because they like downtown, but partly because they say they couldn't do their job in a more typical corporate setting. Their old building, they say, is individualistic, unique, interesting, inspiring. And, for them, it's the perfect size.

4. Old Buildings are more versatile than new buildings.

Consider the case study of the 1982 World's Fair. Dozens of new buildings were built for the six-month extravaganza. Most of them were torn down, including some that were intended to be permanent. Most of the buildings that remain, 31 years later, are the historic buildings that were on site decades before the fair. The 1917 Candy Factory, during the fair a noisy emporium with restaurants, took a turn as an art-gallery and performance-space venue, and is now fully occupied with upscale residences. The 1905 L&N train station, which hasn't greeted a passenger train since 1968, hosted restaurants and offices during the fair and for some years afterward. Now it's thriving as a STEM academy, a competitive public high school emphasizing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The World's Fair site offers another surprising example of versatility. Some styles of old houses have a reputation as energy wasters, like the "drafty old house" that bedeviled Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.

Knox Heritage's "Green House," one of the city's first to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, is an 1888 Victorian off 11th Street almost demolished because it was deemed too far gone to save. After KH's work, which included a heat-pump system, it's one of the most energy-efficient houses in town. It's currently occupied by the Episcopal bishop and his wife, who moved to town looking for a historic house that was also energy efficient. Their utility bill is reportedly less than $50 a month.

It's an unusual case. But a 2011 National Trust study concludes that for overall energy efficiency and environmental impact, "reusing an existing building and upgrading it to be as efficient as possible is almost always the best choice regardless of building type and climate." Often that upgrade is as simple as storm windows and insulation.

5. Old buildings attract. Maybe not you, but many others.

Of course, Jacobs' premise that old buildings are less expensive than new ones isn't always true. After a thorough renovation, a historic building is rarely cheap. Renovations sometimes cost more than new construction—and that points out another strength of old buildings, though it may be the hardest to analyze.

Those who can afford to are often willing to pay extra to live or work in a historic building. Demand determines price, and the most expensive condominiums in Knoxville, reportedly, are in century-old Gay Street buildings. Those, as well as many others in smaller buildings, attract affluent residents, who in turn patronize downtown restaurants and shops. The most popular residential block in Knoxville, in terms of people per linear foot, is the 100 block of Gay Street, where everything's at least 80 years old. These residents spend money here, and make it possible to keep the tax rates down for the whole city and county. That's either another reason to save old buildings, or just a reason to care about this one.

Preservationist developers say it's easier to sell condos in older buildings, especially those with the coveted claim of "prewar"—that is, pre-1940. Manhattanites' prewar apartment craving has been lampooned in New Yorker cartoons, but it's a factor that urban real-estate agents have learned to respect.

Several businesses prefer old buildings, too—even exclusively, as in the case of Mast General Store. Travelers from other states drive into town off the highway just to shop at Mast, the offbeat department store which is by far the largest and busiest retailer in central Knoxville. Their late 1890s building, not outwardly impressive before renovation, had been vacant for two decades. If it had been torn down, we might not have a Mast General Store in town; the North Carolina company places its popular stores only in large old buildings.

As a municipal amenity, prewar condos and apartments help with attracting new talent to Knoxville. About 25 years ago, I worked for Whittle Communications, a magazine company that recruited nationally. Some of the prospective editors I interviewed turned down our offer to move to Knoxville precisely due to its then-lack of rehabbed apartment spaces downtown and functional historic neighborhoods.

It's different now. Today, more than a thousand people, many who could afford to live anywhere, choose to live in apartments in old buildings downtown. Many professionals live in newly habitable historic neighborhoods like Old North, Fourth & Gill, and Park Ridge.

Diversity of living options is a municipal asset, and one always served by preservation—especially in a city like Knoxville, where our supply of historic buildings is limited, and small.

Is it the warmth of the materials, the heart pine, marble, or old brick—or the resonance of other people, other activities? Maybe older buildings are just more interesting. The different levels, the vestiges of other uses, the awkward corners, the mixtures of styles, they're at least something to talk about. You could build a building as distinctive and interesting as, say, the beaux-arts Emporium, an 1890s department store turned into a popular arts center; or the 1930s multi-story art-deco cafeteria known as the S&W, now well-used as an upscale Aveda store and beauty school. But no one ever does.

America's downtown revivals suggest that people like old buildings. Often you can't walk to lunch on Gay Street without blundering into someone's photograph of the 1908 Burwell or the 1919 Farragut or the 1876 Kern building. Madison Avenue's been aware of that fascination for years. Watch some TV commercials. When an advertiser wants to show an appealing picture of "America" in a flattering light, in a commercial for mood-elevating drugs or investment strategies or luxury cars, they often show old buildings. Whether the intention is patriotic, homey, flirty, warm, reassuring, pre-1940 architecture fits the bill. Regardless of how they actually spend their lives, Americans prefer to picture themselves living around old buildings. Some eyes glaze over when preservationists talk about "historic building stock," but that's what it means; it's a community's inventory of old buildings ready to fulfill new uses.

Even modern developers respect that yearning. Many 21st-century strip malls, like one on Kingston Pike in Bearden, mimic Victorian streetscapes. Sometimes developers build new buildings to look just like old factories. Near Knoxville Center Mall is Don Pablo's, built to look just like a ca. 1920 brick factory building reconditioned as a restaurant. Lacking a real historic building, they want to give their customers the illusion that they're in one.

The appeal of old buildings is a subjective thing, of course. If you're not like that, it would profit you to be aware that many, many people are.

If a prospective resident, or investor, or proprietor, needs an old building, say, a prewar building, there's a finite and comparatively small supply of them, and every time one is torn down, the supply is smaller, and Knoxville becomes, in that respect, less appealing, less interesting, less marketable.

6. Old buildings are reminders of a city's substance and complexity.

Without historic buildings, whether they're related to something famous and recognizably dramatic or not, newcomers and even longtime residents can get a weirdly skewed idea of a place. A city can seem less substantial, less integral, maybe less reliable.

Anybody who's been to Memphis in the last 30 years can get an idea of the importance of context. Part of Beale Street is preserved, and it's a good thing that it is. Several interesting old buildings represent a lot of musical history. But almost nothing around this one short historic section of Beale Street was saved. It's like a little theme park popped up in the middle of a big bleak suburban strip, with acres of surface parking all around. The many buildings torn down in its vicinity may not have been as "historic" as some of these remaining, but they once gave Beale Street context, and made it seem like a real place.

A similar phenomenon afflicts Knoxville, on a different scale. Gay Street's there, but most of State Street's gone. Not to mention most of South Central, Vine, Commerce, etc. Based on what's left, it's easy to believe, as many newcomers do, that Knoxville's urban development never extended in those directions, that it has always been a small town. In particular, one common demolition-related misconception is that Knoxville is a "college town," historically dependent on its university. Downtown's tiny, perhaps the size of a college town's downtown. UT's campus, which is almost adjacent, is much bigger. It's a typical pattern for college towns.

In fact, Knoxville developed mainly as an industrial and wholesaling city, and during the city's period of greatest growth, a century ago, UT's entire student population accounted for hardly 2 percent of Knoxville's population. UT was never more than 5 percent of Knoxville's population until after World War II. But development patterns, and especially demolition in the campus area, once a middle-class residential community, can give a tail-wagging-the-dog impression.

And people jump to conclusions about how flexible the city is. More than one observer, looking around town, has assumed that apartment living, for example, is new and unfamiliar to Knoxville. It's an easy to conclusion to make. Almost all obvious apartment buildings, especially downtown and west, are relatively modern, mid-20th-century or later. Downtown's remaining old buildings are mostly stores, warehouses, and office buildings. But a century ago, thousands of Knoxvillians lived in downtown apartment buildings and townhouses. They're not there anymore because we tore almost all of them down. Urban living isn't new to us. It's just been a while.

Just as banks like to build stately, old-fashioned facades, even when they're in strip malls, a city needs its old buildings to give itself, perhaps more authentically than suburban banks, a sense of permanency and independence.

7. You can't trust developers.

When a Knoxville developer tears down a historic building, there's a very good chance—experience suggests it may be well over 50 percent—that they won't replace it with anything akin to what they promised in the newspaper-ready architectural renderings.

In 1956, developers tore down Knoxville's landmark opera house, a large auditorium where Sarah Bernhardt and Lily Langtry and Will Rogers had performed, where even Frederick Douglass had spoken to a mixed-race audience. They tore it down to build a wonderful new department store that was going to change the way Knoxville shopped. Developers changed their minds. It became a surface parking lot.

In the 1960s, the Chamber of Commerce tore down the once-famous Edison Theatorium for a new Chamber of Commerce building on Gay Street. They changed their minds and decided to build elsewhere. It's now a surface parking lot.

In the '70s, Church Avenue's Ross Flats, the brick and stone edifice that was one of the handsomest apartment buildings ever built in Knoxville, was torn down in anticipation of an unusual modern development called the East-West Mall, touted as the salvation of downtown. It never happened. Now it's a surface parking lot.

In the 1990s, the large prewar brick-and-stone Tennessee Mine & Mill Building on State Street, being prepared to be a major mixed-use residential conversion, was acquired by eminent domain for the huge Justice Center project. It didn't happen. It's now a surface parking lot, and relatively underused at that.

In 2005, a downtown bank tore down a five-story 1904 apartment building, a brick beaux-arts building on Union that preservationist developers had coveted and tried to purchase to renovate it for residences. Emphasizing the urgency of expansion, the bank published designs of an attractive new bank building. Eight years later, it's a strictly private surface parking lot. Evenings and weekends, it's mostly empty.

Developers' promises can make anybody cynical. Dozens of downtown's most valuable historic buildings were torn down for exciting projects that never got built. The developers promised a wonderful new edifice, then changed their minds. With no mechanism to hold developers to their promises, the city can only smile sweetly and hum a merry tune.

We always forgive and forget. We're pushovers for drawings.

8. We can never know what will be valued in the future.

"Historic" is subjective. There was a time, not too long ago, when slave cabins were never considered "historic," even if the master's house was.

Americans were late to start talking about their own history. As de Tocqueville and others observed in the 19th century, America was a country that lacked a past and didn't really want one. But by the late 19th century, Knoxvillians began speaking with some regret about the loss of their city's tangible past, first about the log cabins that made up the original settlement. They were all eventually torn down or removed.

By the early 20th century, people were admiring "antebellum" houses, those built before the Civil War, as something special. It was mainly just talk, of course. We tore down most of them. Of the 4,000-odd antebellum houses in Knox County in 1865, fewer than 100 remain, many of them altered beyond recognition.

Later, people started talking about Victorian houses and buildings as historic, and special in that regard. We were home to a nationally notable architect in the Queen Anne style, whose work is kept across the nation, from coast to coast. George Barber died in 1915, but is much better known now than he was 50 years ago, when we were content to let much of his best work rot away. Now we treasure them.

Of course, every generation redefines what it considers historical, in terms of what it deems valuable from the past.

The National Park Service opens historic consideration for any building that's at least 50 years old. Maybe that blanket definition made more sense before 1990, when any building old enough to be considered historic was prewar, notably distinctive in architecture, often with hand craftsmanship and higher-quality materials than most modern builders can afford.

But now, a 50-year-old building may be a cheap concrete-slab rancher that was built in 1963. Personally, I'm going to have an even harder time thinking of buildings built in the 1970s or '80s as "historic." But I admit I may not be the best one to make that call. People younger than me, who have more of a stake in the future than I do, should be the ones who decide that.

It's often the youngest Knoxvillians who are most interested in saving old things. I thought about that a year or two ago, when a reader called, unhappy about changes to her apartment building, inquiring whether there was any chance it might be considered "historic."

Her question startled me. The building she was asking about was a building I remember being built. Moreover, even as a kid, I didn't like the looks of it. Was it "historic"? I didn't like to think so, partly because I didn't like to think of it being worthy of protection. And partly because I didn't like feeling "historic," myself.

That creepy feeling may be behind thousands of demolitions. A creepy feeling about one's own mortality isn't a good reason to tear down a building.

9. Regrets go only one way.

Over the years, I've heard begrudging regrets expressed about tearing a building down. "We just didn't know" they claim, that a neighborhood was on the cusp of revival, that an old building might have profitable new uses—or that what resulted turned out to be less valuable than what was lost.

Do people ever say, "Damn, we should have torn that building down when we had the chance"? I don't know. I've never heard it.

Updated: Added some more background info and context on the local references for non-Knoxville readers.