Friday, November 30, 2012

333 W. Depot Street (Regas Square) - The Atkin Hotel

Checking the local newspaper today, I found an article focused on plans to build a bullet train from Savannah, GA to Chattanooga. High speed rail is touted as the transportation solution of the future. The rail system in Europe functions as the backbone of transportation on that continent. I understand that it is very important in Asia as well. There was a time when rail was the precursor for development in the United States. A grand majority of towns in the interior US were built with their faces turned toward the shiny rails that brought the big steam locomotives. Knoxville, though founded well before train travel, was much affected by the rise and importance of the railroad. Knoxville, being a larger city, had two major railroad stations, the L&N and the Southern. The L&N, located in what is now the World's Fair park, is now more likely to pop into the minds of modern Knoxvillians when presented the terms "Knoxville" "Train" "Station." However, in the early 20th century, it was the Southern Railroad Station that was doing much of Knoxville's passenger and freight railroad business.

The Southern Railroad Station is located across the tracks, north of Summit Hill on the north end of downtown. It is somewhat cut off from the rest of downtown by the tracks, but the Gay St. viaduct made it very accessible. After it was constructed, a small city of hotels, restaurants, shops, and warehouses sprung up to serve the railroad and its travelers. If one were to get off a train at the Southern in the 1920's, they would find a bustling community, ready to meet almost any need. Today, however, that traveler would find almost nothing. They wouldn't find depressed shops, nor would they find abandoned buildings. They would find open land paved over with asphalt and a backdrop of the I-40 viaduct. In my last post, I showed a picture which depicted a cluster of large buildings in the backdrop. They're all gone. All of them! (small disclaimer, a small portion of one still stands).

If you travel north over the Gay St. viaduct, this is what you will find:

Empty lot on the left. Empty lot on the right.

The site of our subject property.

Several empty lots facing the Southern Depot (note the large tree on Gay Street).

Here once stood the Watauga Hotel, the Central Hotel, the Maxwell House, the Southern Hotel, the Hudson & Essex Car Sales, several cafeterias, and our subject property the Hotel Atkin. Before we begin discussion of the Hotel Atkin, let's begin by looking at the man that was responsible for its existence and for much of what we recognize as Knoxville, C.B. Atkin.

C.B. Atkin

Clay Brown Atkin was born in Knoxville December 27, 1864. His father ran a furniture/mantel store on Gay St., having previously run a sawmill and owned a brickyard among other things. CB left Knoxville to attend Vanderbilt University. When he returned he entered the retail world by way of his father's furniture store. Atkin's store and furniture factory was located on the block now topped by the First Tennessee Plaza Tower, a block that it shared with Staub's Opera House. CB and his brother ultimately purchased the business from their father. That partnership ultimately fell apart, leaving CB to run the C.B. Atkin Company. CB's company became the largest manufacturer of cabinet fireplace mantels in the world. The factory at 812 S. Gay St. burned down in 1893. Mr. Atkin had it rebuilt without ever stopping the manufacture of the mantels. Atkin married Mary Burwell and the two moved to Perez Dickinson's old mansion on Main Ave. (now Main St.), which they remodeled extensively.

The CB Atkin House (located roughly where First Baptist and the Bank of America Building now stand).

The Southern Railroad soon presented an opportunity to Mr. Atkin. The railroad built the Coster Shop along the tracks just south of Sharp's ridge. This shop was sure to provide for many jobs. The workers filling those jobs would need somewhere to live, so Mr. Atkins seized the opportunity to purchase a 132 acre tract of land between Broadway and Central Ave. The land was covered in hardwoods, primarily oaks, which were perfect for the manufacture of mantels. Atkin used the trees for manufacturing at a factory he built there and sold the land as 300 (or so) divided lots with homes. We now know this neighborhood as Oakwood. 

The downtown factory and the new furniture factory in Oakwood supplied furniture to all points in the nation.  Oakwood was not Atkin's final land deal. He and a business associate acquired the Knoxville and Fountain City Land Company in 1905. That deal included the Fountain City Duck Pond, the Hotel, the Park, and the dummy line. It was Atkin that set aside the land that is now known as Fountain City Park. He sold many homes and lots in the area.

Mr. Atkin got into the hotel business in 1907, building the Colonial Hotel on Gay St. The hotel was on the same block as his furniture factory and was the nicest hotel in Knoxville at the time. In 1908, as head of the Auditorium Company, he was responsible for building the then current version of the Bijou Theater. In the early 1920's Atkin purchased the relatively new 10 story skyscraper on the corner of Gay St. and Clinch. He subsequently added to the south and east sides of the building, creating what we now know as the Burwell building (he named it after his wife's family). He was instrumental in the creation of the Tennessee Theater and he also owned the Mercantile and Plaza blocks downtown. In other words, Mr. Atkin was a major force in the formation of modern Knoxville. He died at age 67 in 1931. 

Of Mr. Atkin's properties, the flagship was the Hotel Atkin, built between 1910-1913. The hotel was built on the corner of Gay Street and Depot Street, directly across from the Southern Railway Depot. Occupying that prominent corner, it was literally the gateway to Knoxville. Before construction of the hotel, the corner was home to several shanty-like businesses (saloons, boarding houses, and the like). One such business, ironically, was a boarding house called the Atkin House. Many folks believed that Mr. Atkin was deluded building a hotel on the northern outskirts of town, but he saw the potential for Knoxville to grow northward. 

Site of the Hotel Atkin in 1909

The hotel was constructed with 200 rooms, 135 of which had baths. Reportedly, one could get from the train to a room in five minutes. The hotel opened during the Appalachian Exposition. Several dignitaries stayed there, including Walter Damrosch, Albert Spalding, and President Howard Taft. 

The lobby of the hotel had two entrances, one on Gay Street and one on Depot.  As the hotel was near the train station, it played home to many traveling salesmen. It had rooms that the salesmen could rent to sell their wares. The hotel housed an Economy Drug Store, a barbershop, and a dining room. The dining room, which was remembered by Knoxvillians for many decades after it disappeared, opened onto Depot. The dining room featured a young female violinist. Her name was Bertha Roth and she played a 17th century Maggini violin. Walter Damrosch, a famous New York conductor, heard her play in the dining room. Later he wrote that he had never heard a woman "get such tones from a violin." Ms. Roth went on to found the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.

Another locally famous figure with employment ties to the Atkin dining room was John J. Duncan, Sr. A young Representative Duncan once worked as a night clerk at the hotel while he attended the University of Tennssee.

The hotel had an "Eco-magneto" clock, full electricity, steam heat, and a sprinkler system. In an article touting the benefits of sprinkler systems, one October 1916 letter written by CB reports that a bed caught fire in the hotel while 200 guests were present. The sprinklers limited damage to $100 and no disturbance was caused. 

Physically the hotel was massive, encompassing half of a city block. It was five stories tall, constructed of deep red brick with light stone embellishments. The roof was hipped at the eaves and composed of Mediterranean style tiles along the perimeter. The corners of the building are often depicted as holding large, flying flags. 

The Hotel Atkin on the corner of Gay and Depot. The main entrances are covered by ornate awnings. This is now a parking lot.

Hotel Atkin with Economy Drugstore on the corner. The recent Regas restaurant was located toward the left of the photo under the Hotel Watauga sign. Note how nice the street looks without the interstate bridges.

The Economy Drug Store sold aristocratic candies!

Dandy folks going about their day at the Hotel Atkin.

The barbers' chairs at the Hotel Atkin.

As the circus came to town, passing in front of Knoxville's grand hotel.

A close-up of the details.

The Gay Street entrance.

 A great shot of the Hotel Atkin, looking north up Gay St. Note how North Knoxville flows into Downtown with the lack of I-40.

Depot Street from further out. Central Hotel on left, Hotel Atkin Center, Southern Hotel on far right. The railroad depot, the small buildings on the far left, and the small buildings on the left side of Gay St. are all that still stand today.

Note the Tennessee River on the right. Railroad tracks bisect the city. Hotel Atkin is left.

Hotel Atkin Circled


With Labels.

----And Today---

Same tracks, new road, shrunken neighborhood. Just look at all of those parking lots!

The site of the Hotel Atkin across from the Southern Railroad depot.

Showing the sites of the large hotels.

So what happened? Railroad travel all but ceased in the South. That certainly had a lot to do with the demise of the Hotel Atkin. The interstate may have had something to do with it. When the expressway first appeared in Knoxville there was a Gay Street exit. Then there's that always present mantra that there is "no parking downtown." A quick look at the aerial photos above should be enough to dispel that notion. So, what is the verdict?

There are two stories about how the Atkin came down. The first is from an interview with Bill Regas. Regas states that his mother and father got married in the dining room of the Atkin. He then reluctantly goes on to say that "the family demolished the old hotel to build a 177-space parking lot. Although it was painful for the Regas kin to see the old structure collapse, the availability of that much parking kept the restaurant downtown, at its original location." Unfortunately, we now have neither the Regas restaurant nor the Hotel Atkin.

The other story comes from a 1966 newspaper article written just as the building was being demolished. In that article, John Kennedy Craig, president of the Atkin Hotel Company, said that the "old hotel has done well financially but that the site will be more valuable if put to some other use, pointing out that it is close to I-40." Almost 50 years later, the site is still vacant. Perhaps Mr. Craig's prediction was a little off.

Whatever the case, the Atkin came down in June of 1966. It was one of many 1960's demolitions that created the many vacant spaces currently found in downtown Knoxville. If one were to visit St. Augustine, Florida to see the Ponce De Leon hotel, or French Lick Springs, Indiana to see the grand resorts there, one may see a glimpse of what we lost when we lost the Atkin. It was truly a grand old hotel.

Until next time when another lost piece of Knoxville will be found.

Photographs used with permission from the Knox County Library System, McClung Collection.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Changes - Broadway at Jackson

In an effort to provide something interesting between substantive blog posts, I've decided to start adding a "then and now" feature. These posts will focus on familiar landscapes in Knoxville that have undergone significant change over the decades. First up, I offer the intersection of Broadway and Jackson Ave.

Let's go left to right and count some differences:
1) The Knoxville Gas Company building is no longer there.
2) The Broadway viaduct now hides the train tracks below.
3) The AT&T building now completes the background.
4) The Southern Glass building now shores up the steep hill on the corner.
5) The Crane Co. building was long ago painted over with a Philco sign, probably the way most Knoxvillians know it.
6) If you could see through the Southern Glass building, every one of the tall buildings in the background of the 1920's picture is gone.
7) The Corner BP now occupies what was once the front yard of the Temple Beth-El.
What do you notice?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

613 McGhee Street - Knoxville Brewing Company

Don't go looking for this spot. Why not? Well, because there is nothing to be found. The entire street, save for a block or so, is gone. What was once an area integrated into the northern fringe of downtown Knoxville is just completely gone. "What happened?", you may ask. The interstate happened and its arrival erased a large swath of the city from the map. Normally, I write about parking lots. This time around I don't even have a parking lot to share. Welcome back folks. It has been a while since our last foray into Knoxville's lost spaces, so let's pop open a beer and get started.

Beer may not be the first thing that pops into one's mind when thinking of products made in Knoxville. There was a time when Knoxville was known triumphantly as "The Underwear Capital of the World." Now there's a slogan Visit Knoxville needs to trot out every now and again. Knoxville was also famous for its marble production and earned the nickname "Marble City" (not to be confused with the actual Marble City about 3 miles west of downtown). More recently Knoxville has been associated with building boats or medical supplies, but at one time Knoxville was home to the maker of "The best beer in this state".

In 1886, on a spot that had been occupied by Weaver Brothers Pottery, was established the Knoxville Brewing Association. At that time, the site consisted of little more than a couple of storage sheds and an office. What it had going for it, however, was proximity to one of the busiest railroad tracks in East Tennessee. The Knoxville Brewing Association built a rather large beer brewing campus, complete with a brewhouse, a stock house, a bottling house, cold storage, and stables. The brewhouse contained a large brew kettle, a mash tub, and a collecting tank. It was topped by a large cupola, resembling those seen on distilleries in Scotland.

The twin cupolas of the Lagavulin Scotch distillery in Islay, Scotland
In the late 19th century, breweries were springing up all over the nation as immigrants from Germany and eastern Europe moved to American cities. The new concern in Knoxville was established by a trio of entrepreneurs who came to town from Louisville, Kentucky. Edward W. Herman and Anthony Bindewald acted as president and secretary respectively and William Meyer served as the brewmaster. In 1890, the Knoxville Brewing Association reported a capacity of 50,000 barrels per year. That would be fairly small nowadays. Samuel Adams, which is considered a craft beer, brews over 2 million barrels annually. In the late 19th century though, that was no small output (though Pabst was selling 1 million per year back then). The KBA was proud of it's "Pure Lager Beer."
The KBA became the Knoxville Brewing Company during the late 1880's. It reported using "fine malt and hops from the U.S. and Germany." The company employed 30 employees including a night watchman "around the clock", according to the Sanborn maps. The KBC had a catchy slogan, "Brewers, Bottlers, and Shippers of the Celebrated Export Lager Beer."

Believe it or not, that phrase failed to catch on and the company was sold by order of the court for $37,000.00. Previous to that, the company had reported assets of $225,000.00 and liabilities of $135,000.00. so the next purchaser got an exceptional deal. The brewery was reorganized under the moniker of New Knoxville Brewing Company in July of 1895. Evidently, the NKBC spend an awful lot of money drilling a 2000 foot deep well. They gleefully boasted: "From a depth of 2000 feet, nearly half a mile, the New Knoxville Brewing Company obtains by an artesian well, an abundant supply of pure water for brewing and bottling purposes." Now if that doesn't make you want a beer then there is no hope for you. Reportedly the well produced 360 gallons of water per minute at a temperature of 58 degrees. It was used to bottle the brewery's two signature brews, XX Pale and Export Lager.

Even with the announcement of such a grand well, the NKBC failed to make it more that a year before it was sold. A Mr. Edward S. Raynor and company opened the East TN Brewing and Malting Company in 1896 at the NKBC brewery. The ETBMC dropped the Malting portion of it's moniker and became the East Tennessee Brewing Company under the direction of Matthew Senn, F & H Wisegarber, W.H. Lane, and, back from the KBA, brewmaster William Meyer. ETBC offered two beers, Shamrock and Palmetto. The company claimed that its beers were "commended by the medical profession." Guiness does not uniquely hold that claim to fame.

The ETBC had the longest tenure on the site, lasting until 1915. It is noted that electic lights and a complete pasturizing system were added in 1904. In 1909, tragedy struck the brewery when foreman George Welshouse lost his job and then "ended his life by shooting himself through the head with a revolver in front of a mirror in the brewing company's office." He was 39. In 1915, the city passed the Four Mile Prohibition Law. That law effectively ended alcohol production at the plant, offcially anyway. The brewery transformed into an ice making plant, though clandestine brewing still went on. The Union Beverage Company bought the brewery in 1916 to manufacture the syrup for Jitney Cola.  The brewery was subsequently closed later that year.

A check of the 1948 Sanborn maps shows that the brewery was still there in that year, noted as "Vacant Beer Whse." By 1956 it was gone, replaced by the Frank Regas Expressway. So, now that you are all Knoxville beer history experts, let's go looking for it. Travelling north from downtown on Broadway, you'll pass the Corner BP on the right and the Keener Lighting Co on the left. As soon as you cross the Broadway viaduct, you'll come Depot Street. Before they built the viaduct, however, you would have come to a railroad crossing. At that crossing, if you turned left you'd be on McGhee St. (named for Col. C.M. MgGhee's flour mill on that corner).

Looking west down McGhee St. from Broadway (the cross steet in the very near foreground). Nothing in this picture aside from the tracks, is still there.

The railroad tracks are still there, under the viaduct, so imagine standing below the bridge and you'd find McGhee Street except that McGhee street is not there anymore, it was covered by the White Store warehouse that lines the side of the viaduct. So, if you turn left down this imaginary road and proceed two blocks west, you will find yourself under the fly-over bridges of the I-275 interchange. That, my dear readers, is the Knoxville Brewing Company brewery. 

  An aerial shot showing the brewery (labeled below).

Looking East: note the Gay Street viaduct at top, the McClung warehouses right, and Broadway in the center.

The same photo enlarged. The Knoxville Brewering Company is in the center.

A very similar shot from 1956 showing that most of the neighborhood has been erased.

X marks the spot where the brewery once stood.

That same area today; a far cry from the neighborhood that once was.
The yellow line indicates the alignment of McGhee St. and the red block is the approximate location of the brewery.

The location of the brewery if one were standing on McGhee and looking north.

 A shot looking south. This was once inside the brewery complex.

As you can see, there's not a lot there except for some debris and weeds. At one time, this spot housed an impressive structure, especially for an industrial building. They just don't build them like they used to. The entire compound was 150' x 250'. It was four stories tall and composed of a dark brick. It was capped by various dormers and turrets and decorated with masonry designs, a far cry from the simple metal sheds constructed today. It really was an impressives structure, yet it managed to integrate well into it's neighborhood. Step up and see, the once magnificent Knoxville Brewing Company.
Looking east down McGhee Street toward Broadway. The Knoxville Brewing Compary is at left. Note the boiler stack, the cupola on top of the brew house, and the turret at the corner of the stock house.

A closer look showing the word "Stockhouse" and the brick details.

A better look at the brewhouse cupola. It's hard to believe this is now under I-40.

A rendering of the brewery in the 1911 City Directory.

A shot from inside the brewery yard.

Most students of history know what happened to brewing in the early 20th century, and Knoxville was no exception. Prohibition ended all brewing in the city and it did not return until 1993. In 1993, state senator Carl Koella sponsored legislation that allowed the first brewpub in the city of Knoxville. It was to be located at the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill. It never opened. Instead, in the unlikely Woodruff's furniture location on Gay St., the Smoky Mountain Brewing Company began brewing beer in a giant copper kettle. The proprieters spent $40,000.00 to install a grand mahogany bar complete with brass rails. The original iteration closed in 1996 but reopened later under new leadership as the Downtown Grill and Brewery. It is now one of the most popular spots in downtown Knoxville. In the spirit of researching this article, Madame In Knoxville and I stopped in to sample their brews. They never disappoint.

The copper beer kettle at Downtown Grill and Brewery
Alt on the left, Downtown Nut Brown on the right.

 In 1995, after the city's first commercial brewpub had opened downtown,the Copper Cellar/Calhouns restaurant chain established a brewery on Bearden Hill. This brewing concern actually bottles beer, making it more inline with the historical brewery of our city's past. Being downtown, we decided to visit the downtown location of Calhouns to sample their finest.

Calhoun's under the Gay Street Bridge. I'm willing to bet that Suttree may have had a beer at this location.

Blackbear Brown Ale and Cherokee Red

The last, but not least, of Knoxville's breweries is the one that might have the most intrisic connection to the original Knoxville Brewing Company. In 1994, the New Knoxville Brewing Company name was revived. The company opened a brewery on East Depot St., about 8 blocks east of the original brewery, in the old Wallace Saw building. That iteration of NKBC closed in 2000, lasting 5 years longer than the original NKBC. A Mr. Ed Vedley came around in 2004 and reopened the NKBC, again in the Wallace Saw Works building. His go at reviving NKBC lasted until 2006. The building sat empty until Adam Palmer and Johnathan Borsodi came around in 2010 and began the Marble City Brewing Company. In 2011, the name was changed to Saw Works Brewing Company in honor of the building that housed Wallace Saw Works. Using the same equipment as the NKBC, which used the same name as the company that once lived in the old brewery pictured above, they get to claim the title of most direct link. They also produce two excellent beers, just like the original NKBC, a pale ale and an English brown ale. There is a tasting room called The Mill, adjacent to the brewery. I suggest you give them a try.

Saw Works Pale Ale and English Brown.

So here's to the next found piece of lost Knoxville! Until then....
*** UPDATE ***

Johnathan Borsodi, co-founder of Saw Works Brewing Company (formerly Marble City Brewing Company) has provided me with a couple of photos. One of them shows the workers of the Knoxville Brewing Association, what a find!