Tuesday, December 27, 2011

An interesting take on urban decay.

Evidently, artist Mike Doyle has taken to building replicas of deteriorating Victorian houses completely out of Legos. These things are really amazing. Take a look.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Past

Merry Christmas from Knoxville 1921
The Knoxville Community Christmas Tree, Market Street south of Union Ave. 1921

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Requiem for old west Knoxville

I had heard about it, read about it in Property Scope, but I hadn't seen it myself until last night. One of the vestiges of a west Knoxville long forgotten except by those who grew up there from the 40's to the 60's (harder to find than you'd think), fell victim to the bulldozer. It's going to be a Chick-fil-a. The building was unloved, forgotten, and largely ignored by all of those BMW's and Escalades zipping by on the pike. It was the kind of place that polite society might want to pretend didn't exist next to the Starbucks and posh boutiques. It contained Opal's lounge, a sort of rowdy, blue collar place with impossibly cheap beer. There were rusting Oldsmobiles on jack stands and a tarped roof. You had to look pretty hard through the overgrown bush to see all of that, but it was there. I didn't think anyone else would notice, but I was wrong. Making my way through the impersonal, robotic, self-checkout lane at Kroger, I heard a woman of a certain age, who was wearing a fur coat and a fur, leopard print hat, exclaim that "they wouldn't be satisfied until they had paved over everything." This, of course, piqued my interest. She was talking about the Biltmore Court Motel and ranting about the trees. She couldn't believe that they had torn it down and then bulldozed all of the trees. I couldn't either and I couldn't believe that a person in Kroger, west of Sequoyah, shared my concerns. But she was right, the Biltmore, despite its recent history, had been a lovely place.

The bulldozer making its final passes over the former site of the Biltmore Court
Once the site of Bill's Drive-In. That is the original sign, note the neon star. It has survived all of these years and is likely headed to the landfill. 
The Biltmore Court as it appeared a couple of years ago
That great neon-sign was removed in March 2011. I wonder what happened to it.

The Biltmore was a "motor court" built in the 1940's, some say 1949, during a time when Kingston Pike, US 11/70, was the main east/west thoroughfare in these parts. Kingston Pike was lined with these sort of places, places that ushered in the glory days of American motoring. There were service stations, restaurants, and a stretching line of motels. Most of them are now gone, some of them have been re-purposed. There was the Colonial Tourist Court, next door to the Biltmore, it's now a parking lot and a Starbucks. The Colony Tourist Court with its gas lamp inspired lighting, served for many years disguised as Colony Square, a shopping center/office building. It's now home to a shopping center that contains Vibe, @Home, and the former WokHay. Another old strip motel exists next to the 37919 post office. I haven't been able to determine what it was called. It houses offices and a paper shop. Further west, there was the Terrace View Motor Lodge. It looked like the kind of place a James Bond villain might have stayed with its super crisp, modern lines. It was bulldozed in the late 90's to become the Nature's Pantry and Well Nutrition (across from Calhoun's on Bearden Hill). The Mount Vernon, onward west, is now a Mattress store. Out near Gallaher View Rd, there is the Time Out Deli. It is located in the front portion of what was once Sharp's Motel and Grill.

Aside from the motels, there were roadhouses, eating establishments geared to the motoring public. One success story, against all odds, is the Highlands Grill. Heading west on Kingston Pike, just past Western Plaza, Old Kingston pike shoots off to the left at Bearden Beer Market (another successfully re-purposed building). Just behind the shopping center containing Long's Drug Store, the road shifts back to the right, and cuts over the railroad tracks to rejoin Kingston Pike. This was once the alignment of Kingston Pike and in that curve over the tracks, was located the Highlands, one of the first roadhouses. It operated from the 30's until the 60's but was then preserved as Andrew Morton's Gift Shop. It has recently been renovated and returned to restaurant service and it is an excellent experience if you haven't been there yet, The Grille at Highlands Row. Next to the Biltmore, was Bill's drive-in. It was a drive in restaurant that also had a dining room with a very western feel. Bill's was torn down years ago, but the platforms for the drive-in portion remained. They were bulldozed along with the Biltmore last week. Across from the Biltmore was the Dixieland. Some will remember it as Pero's Italian restaurant. Most younger folks will remember it as where McKay's bookstore used to be. It was bulldozed and is now a bank. There were many, many more.

Bill's Drive-In. There wasn't much left except for the sign and some foundation pads. I wonder if the "Save our signs" campaign has looked at saving this one. It might be there a few more days.

While all of these places were predecessors to what is now replacing them (Chick-fil-a's, Courtyard Hotels, Walgreens) they had something that none of these new places possess, individuality. These were Knoxville establishments, uniquely so. Sure, other towns had drive-in restaurants, but only Knoxville has the Pizza Palace. Every town has a Starbucks and each time a place like the Biltmore is bulldozed to become another chain restaurant or big box store, Knoxville loses another piece of its distinctiveness. The Homberg neighborhood, a unique part of Knoxville, now looks a little more like Cedar Bluff. It's a march toward becoming Anytown, USA. The woman in Kroger was right though, the Biltmore really was once a very lovely place.

The historical images on this post were borrowed from www.swankpad.org

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

417 W. Clinch Avenue

Standing at the corner of Clinch Avenue and Gay Street, in the canyon between the Burwell Building and the Farragut Hotel, one is imbued with a feeling that Knoxville is indeed a city, a cosmopolitan place, civilization built and prospering. There is probably good reason for this, as both buildings were constructed during one of Knoxville's boom periods at the beginning of the 20th century. Across the street, one sees the towering Holston. Once the home of Holston National Bank and then Hamilton National Bank in Knoxville, it too was constructed during that era of growth and optimism. (For those who don't know, there was a near twin of our Holston in Chattanooga. It still stands, but a 1966 remodel rendered it almost unrecognizable). Finally, the forth corner of the intersection is capped by the Museum of East Tennessee History. The corner is a recent triumph achieved during the genesis of  a downtown renaissance. It seems that the early decades of a century are generally good for our downtown, but one block down Clinch, heading toward the Sunsphere, is a different story.

As you walk west, between the history center and the Holston, you will pass the Knoxville Customs House on the left, a beautiful homage to a long forgotten period of prosperity in Knoxville. On the right, Krutch park, a lovely public space that once housed half of a block of commerce; Draughon's Business College, real estate companies, tailors, shoe shops, jewelers. As you cross Market, you will find yourself in between two mid-century modern bank buildings. Then, on your left is one of Knoxville's jewels, Le Parigo. This unlikely French bistro, with its small area of sidewalk seating, is situated across from one of Knoxville's earliest surrenders to the automobile and the suburban culture that it brought. As you sit in Cedric's establishment, enjoying what is likely the best Moules à la Provençal in the southeast U.S., you might imagine yourself on some chic French boulevard. Instead, you are greeted by one of Knoxville's first surface parking lots.

The View from Le Parigo, once the home of 417 W. Clinch Ave.
The Hotel Vendome

The parking lot has been there, as far as I have been able to glean, since 1942. As far as parking is concerned, it was probably very ideally located between the headquarters of TVA in the New Sprankle Building, the Arnstein, and the aforementioned Plaza block (Krutch Park). Now, however, it appears that one has to be a member of a special club (perhaps a Home Federal employee) to park one's car there. Surface parking, which seems to have metastasized throughout downtown Knoxville, is especially prevalent on this block. At one point in time, this location could have been considered the most urban in all of downtown. The block was once filled with buildings; the Sprankle Flats, the Park Hotel, the Acuff building, and the Hotel Vendome. Looking at an aerial map, one can almost make out where they all once stood.  

The Vendome was situated at the southern end, facing Clinch, tucked in between the Acuff building and another commercial building which housed an inordinate amount of dental offices. If you were to stand on the sidewalk today, you would have to imagine it between the Home Federal offices and the fence separating the two surface parking lots. 

Back to dinner at Le Parigo, if this location had been a French restaurant in 1890 (from what I can tell, it was still a residence at that time), your view would have been much different. Instead of the grey and moribund parking facility you see above, one would have been greeted by an imposing, six story structure featuring a huge gabled roof and a towering double turret. Local author and history guru, Jack Neely, did an excellent piece a few years back focusing on its opening day. Evidently, it was a grand opening gala drawing the who's who of Knoxville. That story can be viewed HERE. He does a masterful job conveying all of the pomp and circumstance involved in what must have been a glorious evening. Here, we shall try to remain focused on the building itself. 

The Hotel Vendome, as it was called, wasn't a hotel in the ordinary, current sense of the word. It did house people, but more in the spirit of the French usage. It refers to a full service apartment building, which is exactly what the Vendome was intended to be. Fittingly, and amazingly for the very practical residents of Knoxville, the name was pronounced VON-dome, as it is in French (it was named for the famous Parisian square). The building housed upward of 60 rooms, one restaurant, and (not surprisingly for this block) a dental office. Among the many highlights of this grand building was an elevator. According to some historians, this may have been the first elevator in Knoxville.  What's more, from its construction, the Vendome was electrified. By all accounts, it was state of the art for that time.

Strangely, for such a grand building, very few photographs of it exist. None of the photos in the McClung collection feature the building directly. Fortunately, there are some photos which have captured the building in the background, or as a side glance. Perhaps the best known view of the building is this artist's rendering from "Knoxville: The Progressive City of the Great and Growing South" published in 1903 in the American Journal of Commerce. I give you, the Hotel Vendome.

The construction of the Vendome was begun by a couple of Knoxville investors and a fellow from Louisville, KY: Herman G. Bayless, Lewis K. Burns, and William J. Berg. The price of construction was $150,000.00 which (according to the most handy of internet calculators) would be equal to about $3.6 million today. Considering what was built, that would be an enormous bargain. The building opened in January of 1890. A few years later, in 1893, it appears that the principal owner and manager of the Vendome was a Joseph Huckins, of Texarkana. The building was designed by Beaver and Hoffmeister Architects, with Leon Beaver taking the lead. Mr. Beaver was an Ohio native who had recently moved to Knoxville. In Ohio, he was credited with designing the St. Mary's Catholic church in Massillon, OH. He also submitted a design for the Library of Congress building in 1873. That design was very nearly chosen, but ultimately was a close second runner-up. More locally, Mr. Beaver designed the Rose school in Morristown. That building is still standing and gives one an idea of how the Vendome may have looked. 

The Vendome, as previously mentioned, was six stories tall and constructed of dark red brick with sandstone and marble accents. The style was an eclectic melange of Romanesque, Tudor revival, and perhaps a bit of Gothic influence. The main body of the building had a forward facing gable, which crossed a side gable toward the front. Most prominent on the facade was the large double turret and the two story columned porch. Final touches were added by the repeating arch shapes, alcoves, and massive chimneys. Additionally, the Vendome was constructed with a small annex appended to the western face. This annex looked something like a microcosmic Vendome in that it also featured a prominent two-story turret and front facing gable. Appearing as somewhat of an after thought, it was part of the original structure. 

Without further ado, here are the photos that I have been able to unearth, which show the Vendome .

This first photo is from the office of Hugh Tyler. It was taken from a window in the Burwell building and looks west over Gay Street down Clinch Ave. You can see the Vendome peeking out from behind the Holston. 

Close up:

A slightly better view from a different collection:

Close up: 

Here's a shot looking west down Clinch from the corner at Market St. (you can see the Vendome just down the street from the dentists):

Here is a shot taken from the block to the south and west of the Vendome. My best guess is that the photographer was standing on top of a building located about where the Hilton now stands. You are looking northeast with the Arnstein building on the left (featuring the LFM logo) and the Miller's building on the right. 

A close-up:

Finally, we have this small shot from the corner of Walnut Street and Clinch Ave. You are looking north up Walnut and the focus is the small annex that stood on the west side of the Vendome.

Some details from the above photo:

Without a doubt, this was one impressive building. Most of these shots were taken in the 1920's, so the building was over 30 years old at this point. She still looked good. At this time, I have been unable to ascertain what precipitated the tearing down of the Vendome. I don't have any records of there having been a fire or anything catastrophic. My best guess is that the building had fallen into disrepair following the Great Depression the decision was made to tear down the elaborate and out of style structure to fill a practical need for parking. That's just conjecture though. Maybe I will unearth the answer one day. Until then, if you have any photos of the building, I would love to see them. I'm sure someone's great grandmother lived there or had a special occasion there that may have been captured in a family photo album. You never know.

Well, on to the next parking lot to try to find some of Knoxville's lost past.

Edit 12/21/2011: I found one more good picture of the Vendome, from the south looking north, head on.

-All of the historical photos have been used with permission from the Knox County Library's McClung Collection. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Well, today's post shall be short and sweet. I just received approval from the Knox County Public Library/McClung collection to utilize their photos for this blog. Now I can get this bird off the ground. If you are at all concerned about the fate of 710 and 712 Walnut Street, I urge you to visit Knoxville Urban Guy over at Stuck Inside of Knoxville (with the urban blues again). He has the links to all of the relevant articles. http://stuckinsideofknoxville.blogspot.com/2011/11/are-we-still-tearing-down-knoxville-st.html

Next time I hope to hit you with my first content heavy post, but we'll have to see how events play out tomorrow at the CBID meeting tomorrow. Here's hoping for a good outcome for Knoxville's history and future!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thank you Mr. Neely, but why do I feel like I am doing the time warp again?

       The headline came across the webpage for our local, alternative, news weekly like something from two decades ago. It was written by renowned, local author/historian Jack Neely. It made me feel like the case was already well known by the greater Knoxville community: "The Case for Saving Two Downtown Buildings." I'm sorry, what? Did I accidentally jump into my DeLorean and travel back to 1992 (astute readers will remember this as the year the Mann Funeral Home was destroyed)? How in the world could this headline exist on October 18, 2011? It was as if no historic buildings had been repurposed, as if no one lived in the Holston, as if the fundamental values of reusing and maintaining the structures of our past had never been embraced. It was like Knox Heritage never existed and Mary Temple Boyce was still fighting to keep Blount Mansion from becoming a pile of rubble. I could not believe my eyes, yet here we were again. Another entity, one with a history of tearing down beautiful old buildings (Mann's again, anyone?) was poised to pluck two more buildings from the landscape of downtown.
       The justification for such a travesty seemed like it was straight out of that 1992 playbook: the buildings were ugly, far beyond saving, we need some open space. I began thinking of all the examples of this senseless process: the Sprankle Flats, the J. Allen Smith home, and almost the entire Terrace Court neighborhood being recent ones. If one were to take a walk around Knoxville today, one would see some great, remaining structures, but there also existed in Knoxville buildings that if you described them to any teenager on Market Square today, they would accuse you of telling fairy tales. Sure, the Whittle...err...Federal Courthouse is grand but do you remember the Vendome? You don't? Well, it was pretty impressive, once billed as the most impressive building in Tennessee. Still evidently, it wasn't more impressive than a surface parking lot on Clinch Ave. Parking lots have their place, of course, but no one puts parking lots on post cards, "Oh here's the budget pay lot in Schenectady, how quaint."
      What is the meaning of all of this rambling and why put it in a blog, you may ask. I would respond that while I don't want the tone of my blog to be overly negative or combative, I would like to document for the people of this city some of what has been lost over the years due to misguided notions of "progress." I hope to educate, inform, and hopefully ignite in the community a yearning to preserve what is left of the past for future generations. I never saw the Vendome, it was  long gone before I arrived on this planet, but I have no doubt that it would have been the crown jewel in a vibrant downtown Knoxville.
       As of the writing of this entry, we don't yet know the fate of the two buildings on Walnut St., but their current predicament has energized me to get this blog off the ground. The nature of such a blog will likely mean delays between substantive posts (what with research, photo permissions, etc.) so I will likely post progress reports, chit chat, what have you in the intervals. With that all said, let's go find some Knoxville lost.