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Tomato Head Revisited

It's more than a building, but it's that, too

by Jack Neely

Fate strikes, but never in a straight line. Its coincidences can surprise us, but in the end Fate's sense of justice often seems to be lacking something. There are several buildings on Market Square that have been willfully neglected by their owners in recent years, some of whom have been sitting on their properties, waiting for the Next Big Steps to magnify their value.

The building at 12 Market Square wasn't among them. One of the best-kept and restored buildings on the square, it has housed the amazing Tomato Head for 10 years now.

For that full decade, the restaurant has seemed enchanted. It has no free parking. In fact, there are no parking lots at all within sight of the restaurant. But in that decade, as much of the rest of downtown retail shriveled, the restaurant has expanded in size, hours of the week, and employees.

It has always been a lucky place. Several years ago, when owner Mahasti Vafaie took a chance and tore down her low ceiling, she discovered a gorgeous stamped-tin ceiling high above. When she pulled up several layers of bad modern floors, she found beautiful hardwood floors beneath. Both the ceiling and the floors were restored to frame one of Knoxville's liveliest and most creative restaurants, a venue for live music, dramatic productions, and monthly exhibitions of original art as interesting as those in any gallery in town.

That luck was part of why it was a surprise, Monday afternoon, when the south wall of the Tomato Head collapsed. City-sponsored earth-moving work associated with the Miller's Building renovation, in progress in the vacant lot next door, apparently undermined the big brick wall.

The building's over a century old, dating from 1890, an official preservationist's guess on file with the National Register of Historic Places, based on its arched-window style. That would put it here several years before what people recall as the Old Market House, the elaborate building on the Square which was demolished 40 years ago. It was during the administration of Gov. Bob Taylor, the effusive bald orator with the handlebar mustache who was known to play pick-up fiddle here on the Square.

For most of its history, 12 Market Square was a clothing store, a sort of history that rarely lends itself to literature. However, several years ago a UT scholar made the case that one scene of James Agee's A Death In the Family might have taken place in this building, circa 1916, when it was a clothing store called Edington's. It was a working-class men's store, "'tough' and 'sporty' and 'vulgar,'" according to the novel, where Rufus' uptown aunt wouldn't have been seen unless she was trying to please a little boy.

You can tell by the fact that the excess cement squashed between the bricks was never troweled away, that this wall was not originally an exterior wall, but a sidewall which separated 12 Market Square from 10 Market Square. That next-door building, long vacant, was torn down about 15 years ago. The resulting cavity has been the only empty spot on either side of Market Square.

The vacant space seemed an opportunity to offer a swanky shortcut from the renovated Miller's Building to Market Square, hence the earth-moving work there this week. Monday's the one weekday when the Tomato Head closes after lunch. It was an hour or two after the last customer had left, when the earth-moving equipment apparently moved the wrong piece of earth, that the Tomato Head's south wall crumbled.

Today the cracked, sagging wall looks something like the ramparts of a sand castle after a couple of waves have hit it. There are holes big enough to jump through. The whole wall's a loss, no question about that.

The building was deemed safe enough to re-enter, and the owners did just long enough to recover the cash register, computer, and the annual mask show from the walls. Inside, the hardwood floor and stamped-tin ceiling have buckled as if in an earthquake. The sink has dropped to the floor. But co-owner Scott Partin is assuming the damage seems reparable, though it will entail rebuilding the entire wall, and will certainly take some time.

Coming on the heels of the Promenade Building fire in late December, this incident marks the second time in the last two months that well-meaning construction work has been the most obvious culprit in causing major damage to a historic building. With so much work planned in and adjacent to historic areas downtown, I hope we're not seeing a trend. At this writing, contractor Johnson & Galyon appears to be taking responsibility for the damage, and are now working on shoring up the foundation of the building.

I may be prejudiced. I can see the restaurant, and the damage, from my window, and when I'm working on weekends and at night the Tomato Head is often the closest eatery that's open. If they just sold pork rinds and fruitcake I'd probably drop in occasionally. In late morning, before the lunch riffraff shows up, I often work there. Still, Tomato Head is a Knoxville treasure. One of our few truly unique restaurants, it's described and always recommended in several national tour guides and out-of-state newspapers. I have no doubt that Vafaie and her husband Scott Partin will succeed, whatever they do and wherever they do it; they own other buildings on Market Square, including their other restaurant, Lula. Their tentative plans are to move across the Square to the vacant restaurant space in the Kristopher Kendrick-owned Kern building.

But without its Edwardian accouterments and the afternoon sunlight that slants through thewindows on the east side of the Square, the Tomato Head wouldn't be quite the same anywhere else. Today, several members of the old Tomato Head staff are anxious about the fate of 12 Market Square, and so are we.

February 24, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 8
© 2000 Metro Pulse