A while back there was an announcement of the likely prospects for the 1920s Pryor Brown Garage, the four-story brick building at Market and Church that was very nearly torn down a couple of years ago.
If parking garages aren’t significant enough to be historic, that should come as welcome news for our civilization. We could therefore just stop parking. Until then, let’s own up to our costly habit and acknowledge this important invention that enables us to store our vehicles efficiently in an urban setting.
Pryor Brown appears to be one of America’s oldest existing parking garages. It’s an especially good example of one, as a mixed-use building from the beginning; for most of its history it hosted several retail businesses. However, this particular example was, in its heyday, a good deal more than a parking garage.
Known grandly in the 1920s and ’30s as the House of Brown, it was an innovative intermodal transit center, housing Knoxville’s leading taxi fleet (Brown had the taxi contracts for both train stations), a freight transfer service (he carried sets for vaudeville shows), and even some mail hauling in cooperation with the post office. It heralded a new industry of movement.
The new building was such an amazing thing that when they opened it in July 1929, Pryor Brown hosted open houses, soirées in the evenings until 10 p.m., when citizens walked in and beheld this extraordinary building, with its sweeping ramps and interesting amenities like automobile turntables and supervisor’s conning tower. New architecture rarely generates such excitement.
To say it was built between 1925 and 1929 is a simplification. It evolved on this corner over a period of decades. Born around 1849, Pryor Brown began his career as a South Knox County horseman. Brown Mountain is named for his family. He began delivering mail, by horse, as a teenager during the Civil War.
He used his affinity for horses to develop Knoxville’s best-regarded livery stable. Well known by 1901, he built a fine one of brick on this corner. Brown didn’t like cars; one good horse beat a garage full of cars, he said. But he was a practical man in a new century, and around World War I, he motorized his fleet of trucks and began parking cars in his livery stable. The concept of Pryor Brown Garage is older than its bricks.
But speaking of bricks, there’s a story about two very odd ones, which once gave the building an extraordinary distinction.
The story was told for decades, never the same way twice. Around 1880, a South Knoxvillian named Davenport—Charles or Henry, depending on the story—owned many acres in the vicinity of what only later became Lindbergh Forest and Woodlawn Cemetery. He was of the family for whom Davenport Road is named. Mr. Davenport was land rich, but cash poor. When a traveling stranger offered him two gold bricks for $3,750, he saw opportunity. That was a lot of money in the 1880s, around $75,000 in modern dollars. But he knew it was less than a couple of gold bricks would be worth. Today, two gold bars would go for more than $1 million.
In several versions of the story, an Indian, or a dark-complected white man posing as an Indian, is involved, and presented as someone unaware of the value of gold bricks.
Davenport came to downtown Knoxville, to the Mechanics Bank & Trust on Gay Street, and borrowed the money to buy the bricks, with his land as collateral.
After some time admiring his new bricks, Davenport became restless and fearful, alone in his South-Side home, sure he was going to be robbed, maybe murdered.
So he went to sell them. It was then that an assayist explained that the bricks were not gold after all. In some versions of the story they’re copper, in some bronze, in some brass. In one version they’re just plain clay coated with a bright yellow paint.
Disgusted and brokenhearted, Davenport gave the bricks to his friend Pryor Brown, who loved a good story. He incorporated them visibly into the construction of his 1901 livery stable, the one that evolved into a parking garage. When it was torn down in the mid-1920s for a 10-story hotel that was never built, he saved them.
When it became clear the hotel was going nowhere, Brown built the grand new parking garage. He had his masons install Davenport’s legendary gold bricks plainly on either side of the main entrance to the garage on Church Avenue.
Pryor Brown came to his office, sitting in a comfortable chair near the corner of the building, almost every day until he died in the summer of 1936, at the age of 87.
Knoxvillians made a habit of pointing out the oversized gold bricks to newcomers, telling their favorite version of the story. Newspaper columnists like Bert Vincent loved the story, and told it repeatedly, and of course never exactly the same way.
For years, I assumed Mr. Davenport’s gold bricks were still there somewhere, maybe obscured, waiting to be found. But thanks to the public library’s Paper to Pixels project, I discovered the melancholy truth.
When Charlie Brown, Pryor Brown’s son, sold the building to the Bank of Knoxville, 20 years after his dad’s death, he stipulated that he got to keep the legendary gold bricks. In July 1956, he had them removed, the holes in his dad’s old garage patched up.
He lived in a big house on Kingston Pike, and retired on the fortune he and his dad had made. A couple of years later, he moved to Florida.
It would be hard to find replacement bricks that match the building’s construction exactly, 30 years later. And sure enough, if you look at the building’s bricks closely, you see a couple of patches where some bricks look subtly different in color and texture, about 5 or 6 feet up from the sidewalk. I don’t know, but I bet that’s where the big gold bricks were.
What Charlie Brown did with Mr. Davenport’s gold bricks, I don’t know. Maybe somebody out there does.