Thursday, June 28, 2012

311-313 Wall Avenue - The St. James Hotel

In recent decades Knoxville has made earnest, albeit small, attempts to recognize it's musical history. There was the "Tribute to Country Music Park," complete with a fiberglass sculpture of a giant treble clef. The clef is gone, but the park remains. We have the "Cradle of Country Music Walking Tour", however I can't say that I've seen many people walking it. We used to have the Midday Merry Go Round, when WNOX featured artists that shaped early country music, weekdays at lunch. Now we have the WDVX Blue Plate Special, not exactly the same thing but it makes for good listening. One particular item that will stand out in the minds of old time music lovers would be the digitalization of the St. James recordings.

Back in 1929, a billards concern turned big record company, Brunswick, came to Knoxville from Michigan looking for musical talent. Brunswick had a reputation for scouting out new sounds before they had been discovered. They set up shop in the bustling center of Knoxville, at the WNOX studios. Musical acts flocked from all around to be discovered and recorded, not unlike todays reality talent shows on television. The songs represented a variety of genres, everything from hill music to the new and scandalous "blues." Up until that point, Knoxville had mainly been known for Great Harp singing, an interesting form that is currently enjoying an unlikely revival. In all, around 100 songs we recorded. They weren't widely distributed and most went widely unheard until they were digitized. Our concern here, though, isn't the music that was made in the studio, rather the building in which the studio was housed. If one is so inclined, most of the songs that were recorded from 1929-1930 during the St. James sessions can be heard here:

Here are a couple links to a few songs if you just want some flavor:

Sunny South by The Tennessee Ramblers

The Knox County Stomp by the Tennessee Chocolate Drops

Fast-forwarding from the 1920's to the 1970's, one finds Knoxville undergoing some serious exercises in urban renewal. One of the more ambitious projects during that period was the remaking of Summit Hill, from part of the coherent grid of downtown streets into a meandering boulevard. No other project has altered such a large part of the area traditionally known as downtown Knoxville (we will discuss the urban renewal of East Knoxville in a later post). In one fell swoop, seven or eight city blocks (depending on how you count) and City Hall park were all erased. Most of the land is now covered with the sweeping curves of Summit Hill Boulevard. Part of it is the aforementioned Tribute to Country Music Park. Some of it lies under two of Knoxville's most recognizable, newer buildings, the twin TVA towers.  None of it looks like the Knoxville that once was. The buildings fell unceremoniously and practically no one shared any concern as Knoxville's strongest claim to music history was transformed into rubble.

There's nothing there now. If one starts at the intersection of Gay Street and Wall Avenue, walking westwardly, one passes an older building on the left, the Lerner Lofts, and a building that looks somewhat old but isn't, the TVA Credit Union, on the right. Just after the credit union there is an alley. Then there is a grassy hill and a gated entrance to the TVA East Tower. That's it. That's the St. James Hotel, the building in which the recordings took place.

The site of the St. James Hotel
It could be worse, as in another surface parking lot.

If anyone takes the Cradle of Country tour, (and I'm sure somebody has done it...surely) they would see that the ghost of the St. James is recognized on this placard.

It feels a bit like a grave site.

The St. James Hotel began life as the Vandeventer building (perhaps not the easiest title for the English tongue) in 1905. The building has been described as a fortress. It was composed of concrete with an ornamental facade. It wasn't the most attractive building in downtown, nor was it the least. It was the tallest building on its block and the second tallest on Wall Ave, six stories. The big selling point at the time was that it was "fireproof." Touting a building as fireproof in 1905 was most likely very smart salesmanship as the "Million Dollar Fire" had taken place just across Gay Street in 1897. 

The Vandeventer became the St. James in 1916. The place contained 150 rooms with baths, not bad for 1915. The WNOX studio was located on the Mezzanine (read second floor). It was an average hotel, not as nice as the Farragut but not bad either. An advertisement in the Knoxville City Directory described the hotel as "Modern, Fireproof, and European," the last descriptor probably referring to the restaurant in the hotel. Most pictures of the hotel, depict it from the front, probably because it wasn't too descript from the other directions.

Before the addition of the St. James sign.

After the sign went up (just look at all of those power lines).

From the City Directory

The same view, but colorized for a post card (note that both are
 the same view as the top photo but the power lines are removed).

The St. James looks rather lavish in this post card depiction. I am particularly
fond of the fact that the adjacent building was actually made of clouds.

I was able to identify one shot of the St. James, showing a side that never made it onto the post cards. It wasn't the prettiest aspect of the structure.

The hotel interior was very respectable looking, decked out in post-Victorian decor.

The hotel lobby, looking in from Wall Ave.

Dining at the St. James.

Without a doubt, the St. James was a fine place to stay. In fact, it became the kind of place where people stayed for months at a time (not uncommon among downtown hotels). This is the way the St. James looked shortly before it was torn down.

It didn't look nearly as grand in the late 1960's, but that rock-solid structure was withstanding the test of time. Unfortunately for the "Cradle of Country Music", the St. James was torn down with no fanfare in 1973.

This is where it fit:

Looking East (just look at how full downtown is, Gay St. is unbroken).

Looking North

An earlier view depicting the sooty smoke for which Knoxville was so well known.

Today, the St. James is missing along with all of its neighbors that once lined the northern end of Market Square.

The TVA Fountains are pretty in the Summer at least.

Next time, we will move onward and explore a building that survived a near miss with the wrecking ball (at least the majority). Until then, we will leave with a clue from the most famous song to make it out of the St. James Sessions - Leola Manning's "Arcade Building Moan"