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.