A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the the old WNOX auditorium’s awkward fix. The state-of-the-art 1955 broadcasting and recording landmark at Whittle Springs never found its rhythm, and closed after only a few years. In recent decades, a couple of earnest attempts to revive the unique modernist facility with its large auditorium have proven disappointing. A stop-work order, which paused a real-estate dealer’s demolition project—nothing has been announced for the property, which is for sale—has preserved it in the early stages of demolition. But only for a few more weeks.
In my column I mentioned that the demolishers should do their demolishing carefully, because the building contains a cornerstone with a time capsule. I ran across a 1955 newspaper article describing it. But I should have checked with Bradley Reeves, founder of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, who knows about such things.
Bradley says the time capsule was liberated some years ago, probably in the ’80s, when the building was owned by someone in Kentucky. A witness, dead now, expressed disappointment in the contents. But what can you expect? A time capsule that’s just 30 or 40 years old is unlikely to be nearly as interesting to you and me as it would be to people who find it after we’re dead. Time capsules are not intended for the people who remember the time they encapsulate.
Meanwhile, Bradley says, despite visits from Chet Atkins and other attempts to honor the building’s cultural heritage, it wound up in the hands of an owner who just wanted to clear it out, and rented a Dumpster and hired some people to sweep out tons of records from one of country music’s most influential radio stations.
Bradley says the cornerstone, which had a historical inscription on it, was still on the premises for some years after it was looted. It was dislodged from the wall, but too heavy to move easily. Bradley tried to obtain it for the East Tennessee Historical Society, but was told by the then-owner that she was going to use it in a museum.
People like to talk about starting museums, but generally don’t do it. Bradley says she died not long after that, and the cornerstone vanished. He doesn’t know what happened to it.
There are some morals to this story. If you have something rare and unusual of historical interest, don’t wait. Donate it to the East Tennessee Historical Society. They’ll take care of it, make sense of it, perhaps someday display it, and credit you forever.
If you keep it, mathematical probability suggests that it will eventually wind up in the hands of someone who doesn’t care about it. They’ll be annoyed that you saved it, and they will call Junk Bee Gone.
Last month I was riding the free Cumberland Avenue bus when I realized that, while we weren’t looking, Knoxville lost another live-music landmark, semi-legendary to another demographic group. It would be hard to make a case to save the concrete shell at 1820 Cumberland Ave. It had been radically remodeled over the years.
Not long ago it was called Bar Knoxville. But it was once a counterculture place called Alice’s Restaurant, known in the ‘70s for live music. John Prine was there once. Later, the same building very efficiently housed three different businesses, cheek to jowl, each so different from each other they could have been in different countries. The Pickle-U Pub was the Strip’s beer joint, a crowded, smoky place, a little rougher-edged than even the Longbranch Saloon; perhaps vaguely aware of a university nearby, its clientele, overwhelmingly male, were mostly skinny unshaven tough guys who came out weekends hoping to witness a good fight. In the other half was Discount Records, a basic brightly lit record store that offered some good deals. Upstairs of all that, though, was an attic nightclub called Bundulee’s, accessible by a narrow staircase in the back of Pickle-U. About 35 years ago, Bundulee’s was the place to find punk rock in Knoxville, mostly local bands like Koro, Turbine 44, and the Five Twins, but also some traveling ones touted in the alternative-music press. Overenthusiastic pogoing had dented its sloped ceilings with cranium-shaped holes,
Later buildings that housed businesses called Gabby’s and Bonkers and Rumorz looked so different that I’m not sure much of the old building was left. It’s thoroughly gone now.
A few folks have responded to my column about the uncelebrated rock ’n’ roll heritage of the Jacob Building at Chilhowee Park. In the ’50s, it was East Tennessee’s best venue for rock, performed almost exclusively by black bands. A Nashvillian, Del Truitt, who was attending UT in the early ’60s, remembers it was still going on then, when Ike and Tina Turner and the very young Marvin Gaye were performing there. Ike and Tina performed there at least twice, once in 1961, when they appeared on a bill with the Drifters and Chuck Berry, and again the following year.
He recalls the segregated program. For predominantly black shows, blacks got the dance floor, and whites were allowed only in the mezzanine, as spectators. He remembers one ugly incident when during intermission somebody in the white section, occupied by about 50, lobbed a glass whiskey bottle into the black dance floor. “That caused some very tense minutes,” he recalls. To their credit, perhaps, the police cleared out the white section.
The Jacob Building is due some homage as a live-music venue. Since its construction in the early ’40s, replacing a similar but fancier exposition building that had burned down, an amazing array of performers played there, from Louis Armstrong to Big Mama Thornton to Tommy Dorsey to Little Richard to Buddy Rich to Bo Diddley to James Brown. It may not have the best acoustics or the adjacency of dinner places that downtown does, but it has a swing, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll heritage unlike any other building in East Tennessee, featuring the music of two races in an era when the races were expected to stay apart.