When they hear we’re working on a book about Bearden, some wags picture its strip malls, and have some fun with the idea that Bearden can have anything to dignify with the word “history.”
They may not grasp the concept yet. Bearden’s past has a lot more to do it than strip malls. But even strip malls have a story. Last night I dreamed about Western Plaza.
It’s just a low-rise home to chain stores, one of dozens on a long, long street of strip malls, and on first glance no more interesting than most. But it has a history. It and I have a history.
When I was a kid, it was where the A&P and Kroger’s were, and Hall-Brown, the clothing store where my parents dragged me when I needed a jacket and slacks for church.
To a grade-school kid, though, Western Plaza was mainly Woolworth’s. It was a wonderland of a sort that I’m afraid is unknown to kids today. Toys, records, magazines, trendy things, and a lunch counter with grilled-cheese sandwiches and fountain drinks, all in one big happily cluttered room. The record section was near the door, and though I’m sure it was not encyclopedic, it featured everything I’d ever heard of, Herman’s Hermits, Dave
Clark Five, the Beatles, Elvis. I rarely bought records, but kept up with what pop stars looked like by the sunlight by the big window. It was an ever-changing cultural gallery.
Woolworth’s displayed much-assembly-required plastic models, of course, with airplane glue, which it never occurred to me to sniff. The models were mostly in two genres, those of warships and warplanes, and I assembled a variety of those, tall-masted schooners, a Sherman tank, and a C-47 cargo plane with propellers that really spun.
The other genre was monsters. Every horror movie had its own plastic model, by Aurora: Frankenstein, Godzilla, the Mummy, captured in the act of causing fear and devastation, each with a pedestal, suitable for displaying on a desk or an alcove, like a little religious icon.
Some were morbid, or, by 9-year-old standards, poignant. The Forgotten Prisoner was a skeleton chained to a wall in rotten clothes. My parents wouldn’t let me get that one. I gazed at it as one gazes at a Masterpiece.
Woolworth’s also offered one phenomenon unknown except to those who remember it directly. When we remember the ’60s, in all our TV retrospectives, we like to see the same film clips over and over, and they never include Rat Finks. I’m not sure I could explain Rat Finks, except to say that they were made of brightly colored plastic and were smirking rodents who seemed to express the impudence of the era. What happened to them? I don’t ever see these in antique stores.
They had cousins in bright, pliable plastic were those demonic drag racers with horrible grins, bug eyes, tongues hanging out. Suitable for placement on a mantel. What were they even called? Google fails me. They were rebels without causes.
And suddenly at Woolworth’s there were Super Balls, “the most fantastic ball ever created by science.” Later they were small and colorful and you could get them in vending machines. But in 1965 they were big and black, the size of a baseball, and bounced higher than it seemed possible. In fact, I assumed they were going to change the game of baseball. With Super Balls, homers would always go out of the stadium, into the parking lot, and then bounce across the river into the city. Maybe it would change all sports. I loved mine like a pet, this round, black piece of the future, until the day it bounced far, far away. I never saw it again. I never got another.
Just down the sidewalk from Woolworth’s was the first Baskin-Robbins I ever saw. It appeared suddenly, advertising 31 flavors of ice cream, all in one place. My sister and I would beg to go. It was a special treat for a Tuesday night. My dad would drive us, and pretending he didn’t remember the name of the place, always called it Benson and Hedges, just so we’d correct him. Less tempted than I would be now by the dark, sticky ice creams with objects in them, the ones that looked like they might have been scooped off a muddy gutter, I always got cool, chartreuse Daiquiri Ice, partly I think because I knew how to pronounce it. It was an easy way to amuse adults, who knew that a daiquiri was a drink I was not nearly old enough for.
Of course, Western Plaza is different from most strip centers in that it’s built into a hillside above a railroad track. It had a downstairs that many customers never
even knew about, accessible by an inconspicuous breezeway and outside steps, that went down to the big bowling alley. It was a different world down there, of thunderous noise and hard-eyed older men smoking cigarettes, and I could never wrap my mind around the fact that was somehow in the same building as Kroger’s. Around the corner from there was the Rathskeller, a dark restaurant where men went. My dad was a regular. He sometimes took Mom, but never the kids. There was a mystique about it. I didn’t know what went on there, and wasn’t sure I wanted to know. (I never went inside until I was an adult. I was surprised to find just a dark restaurant with a prominent bar.)
When I was in my early teens, the same Western Plaza became my customer. It was on my bicycle paper route. It became, to me, a different place, a place not of Rat Finks and ice cream and bright childish fun, but of commerce, when I was learning to look adults in the eye.
Western Plaza came to seem a little more like a downtown, especially the part of it on the western side where there was one arcade off the sidewalk, with little businesses close together that seemed like they’d been there since before I was born, like an old-fashioned barber shop, with a striped pole, and a liquor store. I was 13 when I started my route, and the old men in the liquor store regarded me with startled amusement. The sign on the window said “No Minors,” and I would never deliver the paper if there was a policeman on the sidewalk. I was the only kid who ever came inside, and I was careful not to stay any longer than it took to lay a newspaper on the counter.
I knew several Western Plazas, just as a kid. In the library I’ve learned about several more. On this spot where we park our cars to go to CVS, there was an antebellum house, constructed of slave-made bricks. This spot of acreage comes with legends of war and murder and beehives, and the remarkable Leipzig-trained professor who should be remembered as Knoxville’s first literary historian.
It promised to be the biggest shopping center Knoxville had ever seen. Western Plaza emerged in stages, with a Grand Opening at Christmastime in 1959, when it was all finished. The famous Budweiser Clydesdales were there to herald it. But there was a big parking lot there a couple of years earlier, and stores arrived to use it.
The shopping center’s western wing, the part that was close to the road right along the Pike, was already there decades earlier. That was the part that was just torn down, early this year. It had been extensively modified over the years, but as I understand it, it might have included some walls that have survived from the ’30s. I haven’t heard any expressions of regret about that, publicly or privately. But that wing constituted one of the first retail centers on Kingston Pike, a very long road that would one day be known for little else.
Among the first tenants back then was a pharmacist named Boyd Sonner. Already familiar for his pharmacy at the northern end of downtown–right at the big X at Central and Broadway–Sonner must have sensed a change in the air in the 1930s, especially as the new suburban development called Sequoyah Hills filled out. He moved his business to Kingston Pike. Other businesses, like Ray’s Market, clustered around his. In the ’50s, Mr. Wong’s Joy Young restaurant was an attraction. Mr. Wong and his family lived in the building, in a loft above their restaurant.
The Rathskeller, an unusual lightly German-themed restaurant behind and underneath, was open by early 1955, and was kind of a big deal, a dark, fancy place to go. The road down the hill to the parking lot was called Rathskeller Drive.
But by the late ’50s, the biggest shopping center in town was going to link to that old strip. With 800 spaces, Western Plaza’s parking lot was even bigger than the big Sears parking lot on North Central. There were people in Knoxville who’d never seen a parking lot so big.
It expressed our topographical verticality, built into a hillside on two planes, one on top and in full view, the other almost secretive, down below, on the level of the creek and the Southern tracks, the oldest railroad tracks in East Tennessee. Down there it was like another shopping center in a different dimension.
Its architect was David Liberman, who more than a decade later would be the lead architect on one of Knoxville’s most starkly conspicuous buildings, downtown’s equally automobile-oriented Hyatt Regency.
Long before Western Plaza was officially finished, in May, 1958, the A&P grocery, which had opened on the Pike, moved just around the corner into the prospective site. I’m intrigued with an ad that suggests, without promising, that its opening would be hailed with an appearance by Mother Maybelle Carter, the legendary folksinger regarded as one of the founders of modern country music. She was then in that spell experienced by lots of great performers, between commercial success and arrival at a status of iconic legend. In her 50s, Mother Maybelle, sometimes accompanied by one or more of her daughters, helped open Knoxville shopping centers or even gas stations, sometimes offering short shows that were broadcast on WNOX.
Hall’s, the fancier-than-average downtown clothing store, opened on the Kingston Pike corner of the new center in the summer of ’59, still a few months before the grand opening; after a merger, it would be known as Hall-Brown. Todd & Armistead, the venerable drugstore, gave Western Plaza even more credibility when it opened a shop there, too. Most of Western Plaza’s early tenants were familiar downtown businesses. It was as if Western Plaza were an attempt to move downtown west, with fewer lawyers and bankers and politicians and more free parking.
And it had a bowling alley, a big one with 24 lanes, under Woolworths, on Western Plaza’s lesser-known underside. They had serious tournaments there, sometimes televised. It was a brave new world.
Outside it was the same old Knoxville. Before the highways, cross-country traffic still came down Kingston Pike, and there were a dozen motels in Bearden to greet them. Wine and liquor were still illegal in Knoxville, by the drink and by the bottle, but easy to find either way. The city’s limits didn’t include the rural areas known as Fountain City and Bearden. Most schools, restaurants and movie theaters were whites only or blacks only, though most seemed aware that was about to change.
Mayor Jack Dance had witnessed the construction of Western Plaza; he would die in office before its grand opening, to be replaced by his young law director, John Duncan.
Because it was so close to Knoxville’s western city limits, it made sense that the new shopping center had a Western theme. In popular culture, at least in terms of TV and movies, the ’50s were more about cowboys than rock & roll. Westerns were at the movie theater, and all over prime-time television. It was the year of Maverick, Broken Arrow, Cheyenne, Wagon Train, Restless Gun, Wyatt Earp, Wells Fargo, Zorro, The Real McCoys–and that new, arty series, Gunsmoke.
You couldn’t get much closer to the Wild West without leaving Knoxville. Known for its narrow streets and crowded buildings–even Market Square still had a big building in the middle of it–Knoxville had never had anything as big and open as a plaza before. It was a concept we knew mainly from the movies, as a locale for a showdown. But squint your eyes and peer over this expanse of shimmering hot asphalt, half-surrounded with low buildings, and it could look like a western plaza. Western Plaza’s permanent sign was a peculiar combination of postwar modernist steel and a boldly serifed 1880’s font, maybe like you’d find at the Longbranch Saloon or the O.K. Corral. The shopping center sometimes advertised with a lariat motif.
That one touch of the historic, in what was otherwise a modern development, reflected America at the time. When America was taking to the highways, and to the air in jets, and occasionally to outer space, and worrying about the atomic bomb, and inviting the amazing new wonder of television into our living rooms, what we watched were lots of stories about cowboys in the Old West.
Western Plaza was instantly popular.
It all became possible when a big piece of land became available.
For well over a century, there had been a house there, right near what is today the entrance of the parking lot. It was an old two-story federal-style red-brick house with a prominent front porch. Once it was known as the Four-Mile Tavern. When it was built, in 1838, it was four miles from Knoxville, which was, back then, strictly what we know as “downtown.” By the early 20th century, people knew it as the Mellen House.
Born in Mississippi just before the Civil War, George Mellen had attended the University of Alabama before a long sojourn studying in in Europe, where he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig. UT’s progressive President Charles Dabney hired Mellen to fill out his ever-more impressive faculty on the Hill. There, for several years, Mellen was a professor of both Greek and French, and ultimately history. He was a charismatic young scholar with a dashing mustache and a cosmopolitan air.
In 1896, he and his wife Mary, who had also studied in Paris and Leipzig, purchased the antebellum house on the west side of town, originally just as a summer cottage. It came with stories, and Dr. Mellen was a collector of stories.
It was built of bricks made from local clay by slaves and kilned on site. Jacob and Jane Lones, or Lonas, whose name is all over the west side of town, by both spellings, once lived there, and ran a sizable farm of 100 acres or more. They witnessed the first train in East Tennessee when it passed through their lower backyard on brand-new tracks in 1855, just a few minutes before Knoxville welcomed that amazing locomotive with a festival.
Although some legends are hard to square with historical records, one goes that the Lones house once sheltered Confederate wounded, and that an upstairs floor was so soaked with blood nothing could be done about it, even decades later. It even showed through thick layers of paint.
Another goes that Mrs. Lones found a rogue Union soldier looting her cabbage patch, and when she challenged him, he clubbed her to death. Some historians question the story, which didn’t appear in print until many years after the war. The original source sometimes cited is a poetic memoir written by an elderly lady said to be a “distant cousin.”
Mrs. Lones has a grave in the Lonas Cemetery, on Fillmore Avenue, about two miles northeast of Western Plaza, as the crow flies. Carved under the image of a mournful willow, it indicates that she died at age 67 on Oct. 7, 1863, about a month into Union occupation.
Not everyone would like to live in a house connected to an alleged murder. But Professor Mellen was the sort of guy who liked a good story. To him, perhaps, it was an amenity, better than a swimming pool.
For the last 30 years of his life, Professor Mellen and his wife, Mary, who was a European-trained scholar, herself, made their home there at what we know as Western Plaza, and raised several children.
Here he prepared his lessons, here he ran successfully for the state legislature, here he studied the mythologies of the Cherokee and early Tennessee literature. And here he began writing Knoxville’s first regular history column for the daily Sentinel, droll and well-researched essays that made the city sound like it had something like a culture. His columns were popular and provocative. Mellen may have been Knoxville’s first popular personal newspaper columnist.
I’d never heard of Mellen until I began running across his columns in microfilm research. I’ve made it a habit to stop and read them. They’re much more entertaining than the era’s political pundits.
And here he raised bees. Dr. Mellen became a minor expert on things apiary. He once wrote an essay called “The Amiable Bee.” He was an amateur beekeeper himself, and kept beehives on his property.
Professor Mellen lived here just long enough to witness the beginning of a new automobile-oriented development just across the street–named for a Cherokee intellectual he’d written some about–called Sequoyah Hills.
An effort to publish his columns in book form was in the works when Mellen died in 1927, but apparently never completed. However, steep Mellen Road, which materialized across the street from his old home, was named for him.
Not long after his death, excavation for the apartment building across the street, Kingston Manor, turned up a surprise, the skeleton of a Confederate soldier. The professor’s widow, Mary Mellen, herself known as a Civil War historian, too, conveyed the bones to the Confederate Cemetery on Bethel Avenue for a more proper burial.
Incidentally, that apartment building, Kingston Manor, was hardly completed before it was associated with another murder allegation. Elisha Kane–like Dr. Mellen a UT language professor and literary scholar–was accused of drowning his wife, Jenny, in Chesapeake Bay. The bizarre case, which had peculiar literary overtones, drew national attention. Although Jenny Kane’s death happened hundreds of miles away, the Kanes had lived at Kingston Manor with their German Shepherd, whom Dr. Kane called Jesus Christ, and for a time in 1931 their apartment was treated as a crime scene, as detectives scrutinized it for evidence of Kane’s peculiar character and relationships. He was eventually exonerated, but quit UT and left town.
Mary Mellen was still living in the old Four Mile house across the street at the time. She lived there until her death in 1946.
Their children kept the house for some years after that, and it remained a landmark, even as neighbors made fun of it, claiming the house’s open windows had no screens to hinder the ingress of chickens. Artist Eleanor Wiley, not as celebrated as her sister, impressionist Catherine Wiley, but one of Knoxville’s most popular artists of the ’40s and ’50s, found the old house picturesque, and painted an oil portrait of Four Mile Tavern. In early 1956, it got the attention of remarkable young writer Sarah Booth Conroy. A regular feature writer at the News-Sentinel in the ’50s, especially on subjects related to architecture, Conroy would later be a legendary figure at the Washington Post; today her name is on an award given annually to Washington architecture writers. In early 1956, she wrote a story about the Mellen house acknowledging it was doomed. “For the coach trade, Knoxville built inns,” she wrote. “For the car trade, Knoxville built parking lots.”
By then, George Mellen’s children and grandchildren were involved in the development of Western Plaza.
Wallace McClure is George Mellen’s grandson, though he never knew the old professor; he was born after Mellen’s death, but heard stories. In his memory, the house was charming but in poor condition. Professor Mellen, he says, loved his books but had little interest in home maintenance. But he somehow accumulated a good deal of money, loaned some of it to build houses, and through that his son George Jr., McClure’s uncle, got involved in real estate.
That early strip of retail development next door to the old house became known as the Mellen Block.
Expanding the concept by a factor of about 10 made sense, he says, at a time when Knoxville’s “trade area” seemed to be expanding out Kingston Pike. Kingston Center, with Long’s Drug Store and the White Store, was already there in the mid-’50s, and seemed to be a success.
“Anybody that left Gay Street was thought of as being a traitor!” McClure says. Some were already worried about the attrition of downtown. He adds that many of the people who owned the stores, like some of those who complained about them leaving downtown, already lived near Western Plaza.
McClure says at the time, the prospect of saving the old house didn’t even come up. “We took that house down. It never was very sturdy. And we didn’t even think about preservation in those days,” he says.
Contemporary journalism backs him up. Nobody complained, at least not very publicly. Knoxville didn’t think of itself as a historic city. Only one house had ever been saved after a proposal to demolish it. That was 1792 Blount Mansion, home of a governor and U.S. Constitution signer, and the first frame house in the region. In the late 1950s, Kingston Pike was the address of about a dozen antebellum houses, all of them private homes and little known to Knoxvillians at large who had never been invited guests.
The storied house disappeared, and Western Plaza took off, and became the standard for convenient postwar retail for the 15 years before the city’s first covered shopping mall. No one had ever seen such a big parking lot. It had 800 spaces, bigger even than the big Sears parking lot on North Central, the wonder of 10 years before.
That was the Western Plaza I grew up with, home of Woolworth’s and, amazingly two big groceries, A&P and Kroger, both.
When I turned 16 I outgrew Western Plaza. I yearned for daring new places, cool, dark, noisy teenager places that served beer and had jukeboxes and required a car, like Pizza Hut.
I didn’t go there for a long time. More than a decade later, with a family of my own, I returned to a different Western Plaza.
There were new buildings on the eastern side, enclosing the parking lot. The largest and most noticeable was an unusual modernist bank. It was designed by UT’s much-admired dean of architecture, Robert B. Church III, but not completed when he died suddenly at his drafting table at age 41. It got national attention for its design in 1974.
And now it was called not Western Plaza, but “The Shops at Western Plaza.” The new sign almost implied “Western Plaza” was a natural landmark on its own, and that someone had been clever enough to put shops there. But Western Plaza had always been its shops. Western Plaza and its shops were the same thing. It made my head spin.
But the Atlanta-based developer deemed it tonier, more upscale. This time there was no rootin’ tootin’ lariat theme about it.
Woolworth’s was still open, and a repository of practical things, but no longer had a soda fountain or the daily carnival of colorful unpredictable fun I remembered.
It all seemed scrubbed clean of the odder things. Drinking milkshakes and eating grilled cheese in the same room where parakeets and turtles were for sale may raise issues now, anyway.
Kroger had moved to a much bigger place down the street, and in the space where I remembered the A&P was a new place called Fresh Market, the only grocery I’d ever visited with mood lighting and classical music.
Western Plaza’s main attraction to me as an adult in the ’80s was the Apple Tree Bookstore. It was just a good local bookstore, but the fact they carried new literary magazines like Granta and Utne–they actually gave away old copies of the New York Times Book Review–gave old Western Plaza an uncustomary frisson of intellectual excitement. Professor Mellen would have liked it.
Other newcomers, Green Earth Emporium and the Bike Zoo reflected trends in local culture, and thrived for a while, hinting at lifestyles that would inspire Knoxvillians in years to come.
There was the whole dark drama about the Jinx, of course: the cursed northeastern corner where one promising theme restaurant after another opened to great excitement and apparent popularity, only to die a year or two later. You could write a whole book out of melancholy saga. I wouldn’t read it.
And there was a whole new kind of business. It was the late 20th century, and people had the latest technology at home, video players. I’d heard of them before, but now people had them right at home, connected to the TV. You could watch a movie any time you wanted to. And at this place called Gemstone, where Hall’s used to be, you could rent a movie–an actual feature film!–and take it home to watch. It seemed a solid business model for the future. O brave new world.
I was skeptical at first, but it came to be an inexpensive weekly outing the kids would get excited about, this bright room with thousands of old and new movies advertised by pictures on the case. Go there on a Friday evening, and it was a party of teenagers, college kids, parents. You’d see happy people you hadn’t seen since elementary school, since the World’s Fair, or since this morning at work, offering recommendations.
Of course, now Gemstone’s gone, and the very concept is outmoded. Video-rental stores are a historical oddity barely remembered by graduate students in history.
By the end of the century, the turnover was complete. None of its stores on the upper level were the same ones that had hailed the new concept called “Western Plaza” 40 years earlier. The bowling alley downstairs was still there, the oldest one in town, but under new ownership when it closed in 2005.
My dad had taken us to Western Plaza when we couldn’t drive, to try the new place called Baskin Robbins, with its 31 flavors of ice cream.
Thirty-five years later, in a new century, we took him to Western Plaza when he couldn’t drive. He was starting to have trouble with a crippling neurological syndrome, but he still liked Chinese food, and there was a good Chinese-Thai restaurant that was easy to get a disabled grandfather into and out of for a Sunday lunch.
So a postwar suburban shopping center does have a history, perhaps many histories. This one has hundreds of other histories I don’t know. But there’s something different about suburban architecture that makes it different from downtown architecture. We try to restore downtown to some image of a time before any of us can remember. The Kern Building on Market Square, now known as the Oliver, looks a whole lot like it did when Joseph Baumann, arguably our first working architect, completed it in 1876.
Market Square in general looks a lot like it did in the 1870s and & ’80s, more so in fact than it did 50 years ago. With prewar buildings in general, and downtown buildings in particular, there’s a strong ethic that old buildings should look like they did when they were built. Downtown, it seems to work.
We never apply that ethic to shopping centers. We expect them to change constantly. Architect Robert Church’s bank building was notably famous when it was completed in 1974, but I doubt its owners knew that, or had even heard of Robert Church, when they tore it down 40 years later. It was a modernist icon whose loss was mourned by several UT professors. But it was also a drive-thru bank-chain branch in a postwar shopping center.
Will we ever value suburban shopping-center architecture? Will preservationists ever try to recreate the excitement of the Western Plaza of 1959?
As interesting as that might be, none of us will live to see it. Western Plaza changes constantly. I’m not sure we’d recognize it if it didn’t.
~Researched and Written by Jack Neely