Compiled by Jack Neely for the Knoxville History Project.
Knox Heritage announces its short list of historical resources that are threatened, but show promise for new life in the future.
As always, this year’s announcement of the Fragile Fifteen includes a few surprises.
1. Knoxville College no longer has full accreditation and is currently closed. But the hilltop campus of the region’s oldest historically black college is still beautiful and architecturally impressive. Six buildings, mostly brick collegiate buildings, are especially notable, including McKee Hall, Wallace Hall, Elnathan Hall, McMillan Chapel, Giffen Memorial Gymnasium, and the President’s House. Four of them date to the late 1800s, and some of them were visited by major figures in history, from Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King. All are reportedly in states of decay with little likelihood that they’ll be fully used in the near term, and have become a dilemma for an institution with a venerable history but little means of maintaining its facilities in the 21st century.
2. The Cal Johnson Building, built on the 300 block of State Street in 1898, is one of the very few unrenovated historic buildings downtown, but it has a much more extraordinary distinction. It’s a large building built by a man who was raised to be a slave. Cal Johnson (1844-1925) owned racetracks, a chain of saloons, an early movie theater, and this building, which was originally a clothing factory but later hosted Knoxville’s earliest car dealership. It’s now the only surviving structure associated with Johnson, and his name appears high on the facade. He and his wife lived next door, in a house torn down long ago. Throughout downtown’s revival over the last 25 years, the Cal Johnson Building has been vacant or used only for storage. The building’s current owners have previously proposed tearing the building down, but after a city initiative to impose protective H-1 zoning on it, recently assured the Metropolitan Planning Commission that they were in the process of fixing it up and saving it.
3. Most have never seen the James G. Sterchi House, at 809 Dry Gap Pike, on the semi-rural northwest side of town. Built in 1910, it was the home of the founder of the once-huge furniture chain that was headquartered on Gay Street. As has recently come to light, Sterchi (1867-1932) played a significant role in the national popularization of country and folk music in the 1920s. He’s profiled in the Bear Family Records box set, The Knoxville Sessions.
4. Fort Sanders houses and grocery. Three wooden Victorian houses at 1802, 1804, and 1810 Highland Avenue, all have associations with prominent former residents. An adjacent early 20th century commercial building, former home of a longtime grocery, faces 18th Street. In 2000, after a lengthy series of discussions including hospital representatives, all four were included within a defined neighborhood conservation zone intended to preserve the core of Fort Sanders’ historical housing stock. After that publicized agreement, the hospital purchased the buildings, evicted their tenants, and in 2013 sought permission to demolish the buildings, without announcing specific building plans for the site. The buildings have since been vacant and untended.
5. The Paul Howard House at 2921 N. Broadway, an early 20th-century bungalow, is one of the last well-preserved residences on that once-lovely in North Knoxville, and was home to several civic leaders. A year ago, it was in the sights of a planned Walmart. That plan has been canceled, but the house and its tree-shaded grounds are still for sale, in an area now dominated by chain retail and large parking lots.
6. Maybe the most unusual house on this year’s list is the Joseph Knaffl House at 3837 Speedway Circle in the Burlington area of East Knoxville. It’s the oldest and largest house on that unique oval street, which traces the route of an 1890s racetrack. But it’s unique because when it was built, as the home of nationally renowned art photographer Joseph Knaffl (1861-1938), it downtown—on Gay Street near Main. When it was in the way of the mid-1920s construction of the Andrew Johnson Hotel, the Knaffl became the most ambitious house-moving job in Knoxville history. Its new owner, who lives in another county, has expressed an intention to demolish it.
7. The Greyhound Bus Station, on Magnolia at Central, may be the biggest surprise on the list, as one of the newest ever to make the Fragile 15. Built in 1960, it’s an example of mid-century modernist design, which has gained new appreciation in recent years. The station is reportedly likely to be vacated by the bus line.
8. The University of Tennessee’s Estabrook Hall (1898) is the second-oldest academic building on campus. The unusual Victorian building on UT’s Hill is a rare landmark with associations with the Summer School of the South, a weeks-long Chautauqua-style program for thousands of teachers from across the country, a century ago; and with the founding of UT’s College of Architecture and Design. Some campus plans have called for demolishing it, but UT has indicated a willingness to keep it if it’s economically feasible.
9. The 1925 Sanitary Laundry at 625 N. Broadway, a modern marvel when it was built, is on the rapidly developing north side of downtown, within walking distance of new businesses. It’s been deteriorating for some years. The city recently obtained it to make it available for private development, but has declined the only proposal so far.
10. The Burlington Commercial District is the little “downtown” in East Knoxville along Holston Drive and Martin Luther King Drive, near Chilhowee Park. Its buildings date mostly to the 1920s and ‘30s, though one may be much older. It’s still home to a few thriving businesses, but several of its buildings are empty, and some have been demolished in recent years. It’s the subject of a new initiative by Knox Heritage to be organized as a historic district.
11. Built in 1927, hilltop Rule High, at 1901 Vermont Ave., near Lonsdale, closed in 1991, but still belongs to Knox County. A proposal suggests a possible future for the huge building as administrative offices for the school system.
12. Built in two stages, in 1925 and 1929, Pryor Brown Garage, at the corner of Market and Church, may be the oldest parking garage in the nation, and served that purpose until recently. Its owner once expressed an intention to demolish it, but several downtown developers want to convert it to other purposes.
13. The French Broad River Corridor is a one-of-a-kind entry in the list, as a partly natural region with historic sites associated with the early settlement of Knox County.
14. The intriguing mansion behind the wall at 4848 Lyons View, the Eugenia Williams home, designed in 1940 is one of only two examples of the Texas architect John Fanz Staub in his home town. Owned by UT since its last private owner died almost 20 years ago, it has deteriorated but remains impressively intact.
15. South Knoxville’s South High, built in 1936 at 953 Moody Ave., is a dilemma, or opportunity, comparable to Rule High. It has been subject to preservation efforts in recent years, but none have resulted in a definite plan.
Featured photo: We take the Greyhound Bus Terminal for granted, but the Magnolia Avenue landmark’s mid-century modernist design, seen here soon after its construction in 1960, sometimes catches the attention of architecture-loving visitors. Image courtesy of Knox Heritage.
The Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to the promotion of and education about the history of Knoxville, presents this column each week to raise awareness of the themes, personalities, and stories of our unique city.
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