Highlands Fling

Bearden's surprising new Highlands Row project amplifies its own history

Suddenly, just behind Mayo's and just west of the Kingston Pike Shopping Center, on a corner of Bearden that hasn't changed much in 40 years, there is a large, classically shaped building with dormers and a tower. Its design seems to mimic its next-door neighbor: an older, smaller brick building that appears to be undergoing a thorough renovation. Both the renovation—it's soon to be an upscale restaurant—and the new construction, an unusual 11,844 square-foot retail center, are part of a new a project by developer Tom Weiss.

As developers go, Weiss is a laid-back fellow. Balding, with a graying beard and bushy eyebrows, he has more the aspect of a novelist, or maybe a college professor who's already gotten tenure and doesn't worry about the Man much anymore. On site he wears shorts and sandals, and rolls his own cigarettes from a particular grade of German tobacco. Originally from South Florida, he's been a developer in Knoxville for 30 years, formerly a partner in FMP/Weissco, best known for several residential and commercial developments of years past. But recently he seems to have undergone a sea change in his attitude toward life, and real-estate development.

When he first worked in town, he says, "I loved bold, contemporary architecture." He worked on a project on Peters Road with maverick historical developer Ron Childress, whose sudden death in the 1980s was traumatic in the preservationist community. "I had great respect for him," Weiss says. "He had real integrity. After his death, this business just kind of dawned on me." Weiss served on the board of Knox Heritage, but has only recently gotten thickly involved with preservationist development; he's leading an effort to redevelop the 1850s Lones-Dowell house on Middlebrook, probably as office space.

Bearden gift shop Andrew Morton's had closed partly due to maintenance issues—the building, owned by an estate, was suffering water damage. Weiss bought it with a 1.3 acre plot, for about two-thirds of a million dollars. For a while, he had it on the market. When a bank offered him a million, to knock it down and build a headquarters building, he considered selling. "I didn't know if I wanted to do real estate anymore. Didn't know if I still had the stomach for doing a development. I went around and around. After some personal issues, the risk of doing a development seemed to pale."

Weiss chose to restore the old building as a restaurant—and also to pull out all the stops building a larger homage to it next door.

He says a 35-day canoe trip in Manitoba last summer—he calls it "the culmination of a midlife crisis"—clarified some things for him. "I went with experienced kids, wonderful, bright, positive-thinking kids. They didn't have any of the misgivings that I did. When I came back I had less fear about proceeding. It had become something real to me."

The epiphany, he says, gave him the courage to go forward with an idea that wasn't necessarily a sure thing. This is, in part, a preservation project, bringing back a Bearden institution. The development, under construction by Sequoyah Ltd., is called Highlands Row; the HR logo will appear on the building's tower.

West Knoxvillians who've lived here for less than half a century might associate the word "Highlands" with this site, which most recently housed Andrew Morton's Fine Gifts and, for a time, a basement piano bar called Ivory's. The building's not nearly as old as it was designed to look, but even so, pushing 80, it's much older than most of its neighbors in West Knoxville. Back before 1950, when the main road made a zigzag by here to cross the railroad tracks, it was Highlands Grill, and the grandest thing on Kingston Pike. In the era just before the national sensation of the book and movie Gone with the Wind, Highlands presented an Old South theme, meant to appeal not just to Knoxvillians but to the thousands of motor tourists who followed 70 or 11—the old Dixie Lee Highway—through Knoxville on their way from Chicago or D.C. to points South. The Highland's waiters were black and wore white jackets, and served the house specialties: country ham, fried chicken, and certain seafood dishes. Highlands claimed to offer the finest dining in Knoxville and was recommended, as the big moderne sign boasted, by the AAA. It had its own color postcard.

Inside was a big dining room with fireplace and a lofty ceiling. A stairway usually blocked with a chain led downstairs, where only select customers were permitted. Even during local Prohibition, the owner offered booze, and sometimes a live band. Though some neighbors don't remember there ever being anything in the patch just north of Highlands, on the site of the new construction, Weiss has learned it was, for a time at least, the site of an associated drive-in restaurant that offered hamburgers and beer.

As interstate highway routes replaced the old routes, traffic dwindled, and Kingston Pike straightened out with a new longer viaduct over the train tracks, leaving Highlands a little more out of the way, soon obscured behind the discourteous new Kingston Pike Center. By the '50s Highlands served a mainly local clientele; the basement was known to high-school and college students for its jukebox, as a place to go dancing. It survived that way into the early '60s, and later became Andrew Morton's, the posh place to register for wedding gifts.

The paperwork to put it on the National Register of Historic Places is in process. Some local preservationist authorities were reportedly skeptical about its historical value, but became believers after an inspection. Its construction is solid brick, even its interior walls. The durable concrete-tile roof is original, and the long-obscured wood paneling and beams are mostly intact. The design indulges a little bluff that seems Turkey-Creek modern; the four dormer windows are real windows, but they promise no second floor.

Weiss pulled the same trick with the new building. "These are false dormers," he says. "But those are false dormers, too. So we stayed authentic, and went with false dormers." The roof, though, is expensive concrete tile. Outside will be gas lanterns on posts. The metal work, including the steel-and-copper logo, will be fabricated by well-known local metalworker Preston Farabow of Ironwood Studios. Breaking a postwar Kingston Pike tradition not broken often enough, parking will be mostly out of sight, beneath the building. He thinks the unusual attention to detail will attract attention from interesting retailers.

The retail spaces—there's accommodation for six, though some could be combined—are unusual, in part, because each has a ceiling perhaps 20 feet high, and a mezzanine. Weiss says that neighborhood antique dealer Scott Bishop helped him with the design. None of them are spoken for yet; he's working as his own leasing agent.

Weiss is closer to a deal on the older building, which he expects to be an upscale restaurant run by Steve Manolopoulos, the restaurateur formerly of Montreal who opened Turkey Creek's well-regarded Italian spot Vinny & Me. Weiss says it will be an especially distinctive steak house.

The new construction will probably be finished sooner, perhaps by the end of the summer. He talks about sitting through a sermon at St. John's Episcopal, about the folly of the Build It and They Will Come model. "I hope it's not a failed model," he says, "because that's exactly what I'm doing."

He talks about his South Florida childhood home, of returning and not knowing anybody, and the lack of a sense of place. "I'm not big on formulas," says Weiss. "But I like local businesses. Distinctive local businesses that add character or personality to an area.

"For my daughter, I've always seen the importance of rootedness, of having roots in a place. That's what I'm hoping to do with both these projects."