Friday, November 6, 2015

The 200 Block of Gay Street, East Side - The Gaps of Gay Street Part 3

Once upon a time, in a place called Knoxville, a passenger arrived at the Southern Railroad station. The passenger wasn't carrying much luggage, just a small case. Given that he had no heavy burden, he thought, "what the hay, I'll just walk to the Andrew Johnson." He walked the nine blocks passing clothing shops, banks, restaurants, movie theaters, soda fountains, and druggists. He found a real city, an unbroken canyon of commerce all the way from the train rails to the railings on the Gay Street Bridge. There was so much hustle and bustle that there wasn't an open space between store fronts, not a parking lot or un-visited "park" in sight. And that, readers, is what Gay Street used to be like.

So what happened, you might ask. Well readers, the 1970's happened, 1974-75 in particular. I haven't done the math, but I would be willing to wager that downtown proper lost more buildings between 1973-1976 than at any other time in its history. In those short years we lost the St. James, The Summit Apartments, the Commerce Street Fire Hall, the old Lawson-McGhee library, the rectory of Immaculate Conception Church, the Terminal building, one of the Victorian Southern Railroad office buildings at the Gay St. Viaduct, 3 buildings on Jackson Avenue in the Old City (now a parking lot across from Boyd's Jig and Reel), the entire 200 block of Gay Street on both sides, and on and on.

Who could ever forget the infamous Treble Clef?
In the last two posts, I was able to focus on the history of each individual property; the people that built it, their fortunes, their legacy. This time however, I'll be lucky to get in what used to be there, how it changed, and what happened to it. Why the change? Because, this post focuses on the destruction of an entire city block. That's seven buildings fronting Gay Street or the addresses 200 through 218. Every one of them came down in 1975. That's almost as ridiculous as what replaced them, a fiberglass treble clef! Who reading this blog has spent quality time in that tranquil park?......Waiting......Nobody? Well, I'm surprised, but I'm sure we've all traveled on the "traffic sewer" that is Summit Hill Drive. Let's talk about what used to be there before Summit Hill cut downtown in half.

The 200 block was never anything terrible flashy. Back in 1880, there wasn't much on this particular stretch of Gay Street. The boom of commerce, tied to the railroad, hadn't yet filled the block. That would change between 1886 and 1890. By then, the whole block was full and would change little between then and 1975.

The middle of the 200 Block, 1907, looking northeast.
 In the above photo, from left to right, we are looking at 210, 212, 214, and 216. 218, at the far right of the photo, was the corner of the block. We can see that 216 is occupied by Moore-Carpenter Hardware, next to it is Chapman Drugs in 214, the tallest building on the block. The next two storefronts, originally occupied by the George Brown Hardware Co. would come to be occupied by the Wright-Cruze hardware company. Every building in this photo was still standing in 1975, although they looked a little different.

By 1919, Chapman Drugs had assumed the storefront occupied by Moore-Carpenter. The corner building on the far right, 218, was being remade into the New American Bank after having been the Shield's Bros. Groceries and then The Gay Barber Shop and Turkish Baths.

A little has changed, some businesses have grown. 200 Block, looking southeast.

The Akron Tire Exchange has moved in to supply the growing population of automobiles. The new bank on the corner, is being fitted with a more appropriate facade.

200 Block looking northeast.

Work being completed by Chas. M. Allen Co (located in the Burwell Bldg.) using Atlanta Terra-Cotta.
The finished product looking much more bank-like.
Fortunately, the facade work for the bank didn't seem to bother the dentists upstairs very much. If you peer closely into the photo above, you are looking down Commerce Ave at the old fire hall and the ancient YMCA.

Next door to the bank, Chapman Drugs was growing by leaps and bounds, touting their famous "White Lion" brand.

Chapman Drugs at 214 and 216 S. Gay carried all kinds of things.

Don't miss out on your De Soto Paints (wonder what happened to Lucas)!
Chapman was very serious about the White Lion brand.
Looking at Chapman, one has to wonder what happened to all of those lions? They may be decorating someone's yard today.

Next door to Chapman, we had Wright-Cruze hardware, purveyors of Sherwin-Williams paints.

Mr. Wright and Mr. Cruz at their desks.

Wright-Cruz, 212-210 S. Gay St.
Notice at the northern end of the above photo, there was an undertaker conveniently down the street if those White Lion drugs didn't work out. As you can see, the 200 block was comprised of buildings not unlike those you'd find on the 100 block today. They were solid brick shells with wooden joists, two to four stories tall, all in the Victorian vernacular. All except one, the one at the corner of Gay and Vine.

Directly across Vine Ave from the Rebori building was an interesting looking structure, built to house a bank at first.

Much has changed by the 1920's. Looking South on Gay St.
In the above photo, we can see the 200-202 building, a beautiful, castle-like place. Originally purposed for the Knoxville Savings Bank from around 1890-1917 or so, it would house one of Knoxville's more familiar businesses, Diftler's Jewelers. Founded by cousins Benjamin Diftler and Max Friedman in 1922, Diftler's would be in business until Nathan Diftler decided to retire in 1998 (the store ended up on Market Street in the Arnstein Building). Diftler's moved to Market Street in 1965 leaving that space vacant for the next decade. It is no coincidence that Friedman and Diftler would set up in this section of town, as it was then known as the Jewish district. There's a great article about that by Jack Neely here. Next to Diftler was Day Co., a loan company. You can see the sign for Family Loan Society, signaling the beginning of what most living Knoxvillians know this block for, loan and pawn shops.

(As an aside, one can see the old Diftler's safe at Rick Terry Jewelers on Gay St.)

Looking north on Gay, 1930's.

By the 1930's, we can see the impressive Sterchi Building has gone up in the background. In this photo, American National Bank is on the corner at 218 The Chapman Drug company is no longer doing business on the block, leaving one vacant storefront and another has been filled by Westinghouse Appliances. Cruze hardware is still there, but next door the Knoxville Outfitting Co. has put up a new building to replace those at 210 and 208. At 206 we find Uncle Moe's Paw followed by United Loan at 204. United would move to 206 later, to be replaced by Busch Loan. On the corner, in 202 we find Dixie Loan and then Diftler's at 200. Dixie, Busch, and United would be there until the end.

A little closer.

Looking south at the 200 Block.
 By the early 1960's, much had changed on the 200 block. Two stories had been removed from 200/202, taking it from the most interesting building on the block to the least. One icon that Knoxvillians of a certain age will remember was the giant, flashing, Coca Cola sign that replaced the upper floors. Dixie, Bush, and United Loan are all still there. Knoxville Outfitters was replaced by Maxwell Lester Furniture in the 50's and then Roberts Co. Office Furniture by the time this photo was taken in the 1960's. Next door Fielden's furniture has expanded to include 212, 214, 216, and 218. The last three addresses were all combined into one common facade. Later, 212 would be home to the Gay Street Cinema Theater in the 1970's. This is the 200 block as most living Knoxvillians remember it.

While not the most glamorous block in town, the 200 was still thriving commercially as it had since the 1890's. All that was about to change. As early as the 1950's, different proposals had floated around for an east-west thoroughfare through downtown. An east-west mall was proposed for the 700 block, but a modern, fast roadway was claimed to be needed for the northern part of downtown. Several designs were put forth over the years, some as simple as making Commerce Street one way and Vine the other way, some proposed widening one of those streets. The most destructive route, however, proposed a wide, curving boulevard through the very heart of the north end of downtown. Guess which proposal won.

Cas Walker was completely, as was his bent, against the new roadway. He said that any improvements would be better left to private investors. The Eagles Club, represented by now Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Charles Susano, also took a stand against the proposed roadway. Famous attorney, John O'Connor represented the Catholic Diocease of Nashville, owners of Immaculate Conception Church, against the roadway as it would cost them their historic rectory and bring the road right up against the church. On the other side was Rodney Lawler, executive director of KCDC who was pushing the plan. KCDC still owns much land that was acquired in the 1970's for this project. Mayor Kyle Testerman broke a 4-4 tie vote on city council to approve funding for the project. On October 17, 1974, reports hit the newspaper that there may have been collusion between private developers, who had acquired land only to turn around and sell it to KCDC at a profit, and public officials. At the end of 1974, a vote was taken in city council for final approval and the plan was defeated!

Whew! That was close, or was it? In January, 1975 the plan was put back on the council agenda. This time it passed 5-3 with two councilmen changing their vote. The plan was in place and funded. The properties were acquired, the bulldozers came in, and the rest is history.

218, 216, and 214 S. Gay just before demolition (used with permission of Jack Kirkland, photographer)
The destruction of the 200 block in progress. Looking west on Vine Avenue. (used with permission of Jack Kirkland, photographer)

So that's what happened readers, a grand scheme to renew downtown (or a boondoggle for developers, you chose). We were left with a large road that bisects the downtown district and a largely unusable park. Here's the way it looks today.

Looking North from the 300 Block.

Looking South from the 100 Block.
The great void where once stood the 200 block.
And now for some requisite aerial shots.

From above.

What's missing (just on Gay St.)

Looking East, 1919
Looking East, 1919 with landmarks
A different perspective.

And now....

And that is what happened to the east side of the 200 block. As you may imagine, the west side suffered the same fate. We'll take a look at it next time in the Gaps of Gay Street series.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Maybe One Day I Will Return to Writing.

Some comments by a reader have prompted me to say something about my recent absence. I have not been able to devote the time it takes to write these history posts as of late because my wife and I welcomed a baby into the world back in February. The little guy has completely captured my free time. Maybe one day I will be able to add the blog back into my juggling routine. Keep checking for updates.

Friday, November 14, 2014

308 S. Gay St. - The McGhee Building - The Gaps of Gay Street Part 2

The last installation of Knoxville Lost and Found's "Gaps of Gay Street" series focused on 322 S. Gay St., the "Terminal Building." This time we are heading north, passing the "Century Building," and landing on the next hole in the Gay Street fabric, 308. We're also going to focus on a building that I initially thought was gone, but later discovered is still there hiding in plain sight. We'll get to that later. This story starts out with a trip back to gilded age Knoxville and one of its most illustrious citizens Charles McClung McGhee.

Charles McClung McGhee

I could not even begin to delve into the person that was C.M. McGhee. His influence in this region was vast and still affects us to this day. If you would like to know as much as possible about Mr. McGhee, William MacArthur wrote the definitive dissertation and you can find it here. The short version is that Mr. McGhee made a lot of money starting in the railroad business and becoming a financier and smart investor. He had deep ties to the Knoxville area (his great-grandfather was James White), so he had keen interests in the civic pride of the city. McGhee was responsible for the siting of most of Knoxville's railroad tracks. McGhee often formed partnerships with another of Knoxville's most illustrious industrialists, E.J. Sanford. Together they founded the Knoxville Woolen Mills, the Lenoir City Company, and acquired the Coal Creek Mining Company.

Mr. McGhee lived here,

The C.M. McGhee mansion at 505 Locust St. Photo thanks to Knoxville Urban Guy @

Which now looks like this,

The Masonic Temple at 505 Locust Street. The McGhee house is still inside of that box.  Photo thanks to Knoxville Urban Guy @

Today, C.M. McGhee is probably best remembered for his greatest gift to the city, the Lawson McGhee Library, which is named for his daughter May Lawson McGhee who died at an early age. His grandson, McGhee Tyson is the person for whom our airport is named. His was a very prodigious legacy.

Mr. McGhee began his career in Knoxville operating a meat packing plant on Gay Street. It is not entirely clear if this plant occupied the same plot that is now known as 310 S. Gay St. We do know, however, that McGhee invested in many land development projects, so that may be how this particular parcel became part of his estate. In any case, McGhee owned a row of two-story buildings on the spot as early as 1870. They were collectively called the McGhee Block. Collectively they housed a wholesale liquor store, a grange, a tailor, a produce store, a rag supply and a drug store.

The building preceding the McGhee was not a victim of the "Great Fire of 1897". Rather, it burned in another fire in 1902, which the Century building again survived. It appears that C.M. McGhee commissioned the building of a larger wholesale house on the site of the smaller building.
308 S. Gay Street, before 1897, at extreme left (two story building). The Century Building (still standing in 2014) is to the left with the two ornamental gables.
 In 1903, C.M. McGhee would replace the small, burned, two story edifice with a five story, two bay building on par with the newly rebuild heart of commerce in Knoxville.

The McGhee Building just after construction in 1903.

The McGhee Building 1930's
It was of semi-mill construction with thick, brick exterior walls. The first floor was marked by two, large doorways capped with scroll work that was repeated above the third floor and on the cornice.

Scroll work and lions
Proudly displaying the name McGhee
One of the ornamental doorways

The McGhee building does not seem to have ever housed a business by the name of McGhee. It was originally occupied by the Broyles, McClellan, and Lackey Company, which sold farm equipment and seed. For a brief time it housed the Shield and Gillespie Clothing Company. Later it housed various furniture concerns including the King Mantel Company, Sterchi & Haun company (which would become Sterchi Bros.), and then Haun Furniture. In it's last years, Walker's store occupied the address 306 (the northern half of the building), while Bill Vasey (Vasey's) Furniture Store occupied the southern half.

A fanciful 1908 rendering by the Shield Brand Clothing Co. showing their marquis on top. The building never looked like this. Shield got its own building later, on the 100 block.

A very early photo of the block. The McGhee is to the left with the square shaped protrusion. The dark building with the stripes is the Century Building. 
King Mantel and Furniture Company in the McGhee Building. Late 1920's/early 1930's.
Sterchi and Haun at the McGhee.
Sterchi and Haun storefront (note the ornate door frame)
1930's The McGhee divided into two fronts (by paint) housing Walker's in the norther half.
Close up on Walker's, the southern side looks vacant. Sterchi may have moved down the street at this point.
1950s Walkers is still there and the southern half is now called Haun and Company Furniture
Looking south down Gay St. early 1960's. The McGhee is identified by the "Furniture" sign at the right. This time it is Bill Vasey Furniture.

As most of my entries go, the McGhee building was eventually torn down. I have been unable to locate the specific date but it was between 1968 and March 22, 1969. We know this because the March 22, 1969 edition of the Knoxville Journal proclaimed the following.:
"A city building permit was obtained Friday on behalf of the estate of C.M. McGhee to construct a two level parking lot at the 308 S. Gay St. site formerly occupied by Vasey Furniture Company. The lot, estimated to cost $47,000.00 will have basement parking and street level parking space and a small office. David B. Lieberman is architect and Brownlee-Kesterson Construction Company is the contractor, according to the permit which also stated that the parking had been approved Friday by the city traffic engineer's office." Interestingly, the parcel was still part of the McGhee estate in 1969. As late as 1985, it was owned by a group called McGhee Properties, when it was sold to Rowland and Rowland P.C.

I had always assumed that the hole in Gay Street at this location was merely a surface parking lot, but it is in fact a two story parking structure. Here is how it looks today.

The hole that used to be 306 and 308 S. Gay Street. Note that the parking lot is at grade.
That gap next to the Century Building used to be the McGhee Building. You can still see the scars that were its floors.
The only thing that remains of the McGhee Building, the rear foundation wall that makes the back wall of the basement garage structure.

Another shot from Fire Street Alley looking toward the Century Building. There are cars inside of that wall.
One thing I discovered when researching this building is that there was once a bridge from the northern half to the building across Fire Street Alley. The scars of that bridge are still there today.

The scars of a former flyover bridge from the McGhee, about two floors up.
And now for the traditional aerial shots showing the missing McGhee Building.

Gay Street, unbroken and containing the McGhee Building
Here it is circled.
From a different vantage, looking east, southeast.
The McGhee Building circled
And how it looks now...

Holes on either side of the Century Building. The one to the left once housed the McGhee.
This hole has been vacant since 1969!

The Century Building casts a shadow where the McGhee Building once stood.
There you have it, the second big gap on Gay St. Now for the bonus round. As I mentioned before, I thought that there was a second building here that had disappeared. Well, it's still there but it looks nothing like it did when it was built. The earliest photos that I can find show it being the Federal Clothing building, but most Knoxvillians will remember it as Max Friedman Jewelers. Let's take a look.

Federal Clothing Stores, McGhee to the right.
I've cropped the McGhee building out of the above photo so that we can focus on the Federal Clothing/Friedman's building.

A detail of the elaborate window openings and cornice.
In the 1930's, the building housed Bill's Auto parts, a business which seems to have moved all over the city during its long history.

Bill's Auto Supply occupying 304 S. Gay St.
A detail shot of the Bill's storefront.
The principal reason for my confusion regarding this building is that it looks nothing like it did back in the 1930's. Sometime in between the 30's and the late 40's, the building suffered major fire damage which cost it its top floor. Then, in the push to modernize Gay street to compete with suburban shopping centers, a metal face was added with a clock that would become iconic in downtown Knoxville.

How 304 S. Gay St. would look from the 1940's until the 1990's.
304 was the home of Max Friedman's Jeweler.Mr. Friedman's store was an anchor and gateway to what was then Knoxville's Jewish community that centered around Vine Avenue from the 200 block of Gay Street all the way on Vine to the old Temple Beth-El. Mr. Friedman, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, was a highly regarded political figure and one of Knoxville's most powerful Jewish citizens. It is said that he bore a striking resemblance to Harry Truman. An old family tale credits him with giving FDR the idea to call his political package the "New Deal." He also served two decades on city council.One can learn all about Mr. Friedman and the Jewish community of Knoxville in the book A Separate Circle: Jewish Life in Knoxville by Wendy Lowe Besmann.

His shop sat vacant for decades after Mr. Friedman retired. In the 1990's, the metal skin on the front of the building was removed and the building had a brick front that reflected all that had been done after the 1940's fire. The building was owned by Cormac McCarthy's brother Dennis for a short time in the late 90's.

In the above photo, you can see that by 2007, almost nothing remained of the original facade. The building was purchased by Everettt Properties, LLC who commissioned Sanders Pace Architecture to revamp the street face of the old building. It now looks like this.

The Federal Clothing/Max Friedman Building today.
During the 2007 renovations to the building, the Crimson building next door caught fire and was completely gutted. 304 survived to be completed. Sanders Pace received numerous awards for their design. You can read all about the redesign process here.

It isn't until you look at the rear of the building that you realize that it is over 100 years old.

Max Friedman's from Fire Street Alley
So, Federal Clothing / Max Friedman's Jewelers is still there today, housing Buzz Naber's Dentistry and looking completely modern and sophisticated. The McGhee Building is but a distant memory. Perhaps the owners will someday decide to fill in this gap in Gay Street.

Until next time...