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The City-County Building

Market Square

Thompson-Boling Arena

The Best

It may surprise laymen to know that when architects—even academics, old-school modernists, and young mavericks—name the Knoxville buildings they like best, several of their favorites are pre-modern. Most of the architects we spoke with, in fact, named the downtown post office on Main Street as one of Knoxville's very finest buildings. Designed in the art-moderne style popular in the early '30s, it's built of massive slabs of pink Tennessee marble, detailed with carving by Italian sculptor Albert Milani.

The City County Building. Though controversial (see The Worst), it will always have a champion in Dean Marlene Davis, who quotes visiting architect Jerzy Soltan that its designer was "touched by genius." Most of the architects we spoke with mentioned its virtues—especially its interior space—in spite of its problems.

Best known for his renovations of the interiors of historic buildings, Buzz Goss praises the Bullock Smith project Center Square on Gay Street and the McCarty-Holsaple-McCarty NationsBank building on Main.

Plaza Tower and Riverview Tower, or, as they're still known, the Butcher buildings. Bob Parrott especially likes the Riverview. Jeff Gordon says, "I like their muteness, their difference from downtown." He calls them "Knoxville's answer to Hancock Tower in Boston." Davis and others remark that modernism works best when it's juxtaposed with older buildings, as it is here. Some like the fact that they, unlike most of downtown, are visible from western Cumberland Avenue and even parts of Kingston Pike.

Church Street Methodist Church (which is actually on Henley at Main), by the venerable firm of Barber & McMurry. "I'm Catholic," says Grover Mouton. "I don't know what they believe. But Methodists build some wonderful buildings. That church is just fantastic." He praises its asymmetrical design.

The Whittle Building. Though opinion of it is mixed and usually ambivalent, it made several architects' lists as one of Knoxville's best. "It's flat-out revivalist, and has some clumsy aspects," says Ken Moffett. "I think it was the first time that New York firm ever did a Georgian building—but I think it's one of the better buildings downtown." Davis likes it, too. Several praise its scale, and for including a public courtyard—though much of it is being consumed by the federal courthouse project.

Bob Parrott and others like the massive stone 1892 St. John's Episcopal Church, and its recent in-character annex drew several positive comments.

A few mention the marble 1873 Custom House on Market Street. "That's your best building," says Mouton.
Though none of our local-architecture interviewees thought to mention it, McCarty's Clarence Brown Theater at UT is described in Architecture of the United States, praised for its plaza and fine auditorium.

Ayres Hall, Doug McCarty says, works well as a symbol of higher education. UT professor David Fox adds, "It goes beyond architecture to be a symbol of the University."

Daryl Johnson and a few others mention the new UT Law School addition as a harmonious combination of a bold new project with an old building.

"Knoxville has a very memorable downtown," Davis says, and several other architects, rather than mentioning a single building, praised clusters of them. DeWayne Pendley nominates Market Street between Church and Cumberland. Frank Sparkman speaks of the Old City in similar ways. "Any one may not be a great work of architecture, but as a collection, they are beautiful architecture." Market Square and parts of Gay Street also get raves for their tasteful variety and human scale.

The Art and Architecture Building. All but one architect who brought it up liked its interior. But a few even praised its stark concrete exterior. "It's a wildly different building in a sea of pinkish brick," says one. "It has a presence and integrity that make it memorable," adds Jeff Gordon. "It reminds me of the Whitney in New York."
Moffett likes several Knoxville buildings, but few more than the Greyhound Bus Terminal, near his own office at Magnolia and Central. "It's one of the best '50s modern buildings we have. Inside it's pretty depressing, of course—but that's just the way bus stations are."
Lawson-McGhee Library on Church Street. Frank Sparkman is a preservationist, known for his work on older buildings, but he calls this relatively modern building "one of the finest public buildings here and throughout the Southeast. It's at the appropriate scale, doesn't overwhelm. Instead of just a box, it's a place for human activities."

"Neyland Stadium is amazing—absolutely phenomenal," says Gordon, who we should add is neither a Tennessean nor a UT alumnus. "Its steel-frame skeleton is transparent and exposes the stadium's solid masonry core. You can look at the stadium and read its history."

"The two bridges downtown are very beautiful," says Gordon, referring to the Gay Street Bridge and the Henley Street Bridge. He mentions the tresswork of the 1898 Gay Street Bridge in particular.

Moffett also likes the Bennett Gallery renovation of the Capri Theater, calling it "the improbable renovation of an old, shabby tin box of a theater. It's not great, maybe, but well done. You have to hand it to them."

A few modern commercial works singled out for superlatives are even more surprising than the Greyhound Station. Moffett likes the new Petros stand on Kingston Pike. "It looks like a nice piece of work. It jumps out at you—everything else along Kingston Pike is so not there."

"I love the old Weigels stores," says UT architecture professor Fox. "They're incredible, beautiful little buildings, simple, straightforward buildings that do what they need to do." He says they're constructed of expensive Roman brick rarely seen hereabouts. "It's that thin, narrow brick Frank Lloyd Wright used." He knows of three still standing, though one in Bearden is now occupied by a dry cleaner.

The Worst

One of Knoxville's most prominent buildings is, unfortunately, the Thompson-Boling Arena, designed and built in the '80s. Davis diplomatically calls it "a building a lot of architects would like to redesign." Others aren't as polite. Borrowing Cleveland's nickname, one architect calls it "the mistake by the lake." Another calls it "that mobile home down by the river." One called it "a big metal box on one of our most important thoroughfares." Another just calls it "dumb." Architecture students have been known to send postcards of it to friends in other parts of the country, as an obvious joke. "I keep hoping for those caverns to open up," says one architect, a reference to the arena's problematic construction on cavey ground.
Long-time Knoxville architects don't find it quite as funny. While some architects say they felt sorry for the architect who won the project because of the daunting foundation problems and severe budget constraints, they're still angry at the thought of the place. Mention it and you can almost see their blood pressure rise. From our architectural panel, it was the hands-down winner as Worst Building in Knoxville, mentioned without prompting by more than half of the architects we spoke with.
Gordon says, "I don't mind so much that it's a big mute object from the outside. But the fact that it doesn't acknowledge its [riverside] siting in any way is tragic."
"It's an example of the fiscally conservative approach to architecture," Sparkman says. It was cheaper to build, "but it's ugly as sin. What's the price of that? It was a missed opportunity. It could have added to the community, but it detracted. That's short-sighted."

The John Duncan Federal Building. "A very bland product of postmodernism," says one. "Pretty ugly," says another. "Fairly banal," remarks another. "It looks like it could have been built by machines without human intervention. It's untouchable, aloof from the public. Even though it has what appear to be human spaces around it, they're not really accessible to the public." "It just didn't get it," another says. "It's an example of not understanding the context of what East Tennessee's all about."

The City-County Building (see also The Best). Though all its detractors were quick to praise its open, highly functional interior, a few didn't like its cold concrete exterior, and several regretted its placement across two blocks of river frontage.

The Art and Architecture Building (see also The Best). "It was state of the art when it was built," says one architect. "That horsehair, New Brutalism style. It meets most of the criteria of good design, but I hear so many laymen say they hate it. And it's filthy with atmospheric dust."
A few mentioned the Butcher bank towers (see also The Best) as cold and oversized for Knoxville; Mouton says they look like they belong in Houston or Fort Worth.

UT Law School (see also The Best). "It's a collection of cliches, historicism not particularly well done."

The UT Library is often criticized for being overlarge, out of scale with its site, and with dysfunctional aspects to its interior.

TVA Towers. To Gordon, they say, "I'm the big guy, I'm the important player. I just take what I want." It strikes another architect very differently, but he doesn't like them, either. "It still seems like a timid, inadequate terminus of the Market Street axis." Another just called the complex "a bad symbol."

Gordon calls the Sunsphere "hideous." Davis questions why it, as an observation tower, was built in a deep valley. Another architect calls it "one of the silliest-looking things I've ever seen. People must have a real soft spot for it, because it seems to be becoming a symbol of Knoxville. It's pretty damn goofy." "You could fix it," says Fox, "but it would be expensive. You'd have to get rid of the ball part."
The Knoxville Museum of Art. "There are good things about the interior," says one prominent architect, but the entrance is "forbidding" and "doesn't position itself as part of a public street."

The Whittle Building (see also The Best): "I don't think it's a very sophisticated building," says one prominent architect who knows it well—while admitting that the layman might not notice that its design elements are chaotic.

The Hyatt Regency ("arrogant," says one architect).

Several mentioned most of the strip developments along Kingston Pike—"but that's obvious, of course," said one.

Though everyone we spoke with liked at least one building on UT's campus, several speak of the campus as a whole as a catastrophic failure: "one of the most ill-planned campuses I've seen" says a prominent Knoxville architect (echoing Pulitzer-laureate lecturer Buzz Bissinger's recent comment that it was "the ugliest college campus I've ever seen"). Some remarked on their frustration that the campus has no obvious center, no quad, no relaxed meeting place for the whole campus. The mix of styles doesn't work, with some traditional architecture, some modern; "the foot-in-each-camp approach didn't turn out very well."