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The Next Big Stomps

State Street and other casualties

by Jack Neely

Predictably, local wags dubbed it Red Square. After they tore down all the buildings on the 400 block of State Street, all that was left, not counting the electric substation's impregnable fortress, was a big pit of red clay.

In East Tennessee, of course, things don't stay red for long. This summer, Red Square has been slowly going green as we wait to hear what the county's going to do with it. People speculate about how it might fit into the unfolding Worsham Watkins plan which, as mapped, ends exactly one block to the west. The Justice Center isn't going to be built here, after all, but it's still prime real estate. Maybe, folks are saying, this is the place for those upscale condominiums.

The irony is that that's what was being planned here four years ago, back before all the Big Steps and other developments of millennial proportions.

This block is in the city, but the county owns it, and city officials admit they don't have any clue what the county will do with the block. County Commissioner John Griess has offered an interesting multi-part compromise proposal, discussed by commission earlier this week, to cede the land to the city. But for the time being, for any cooperative practical purpose, Red Square might as well be in Saskatoon.

Some of those buildings demolished a few months ago were arguably historic. One of them was an 80-year-old bus station, probably Knoxville's first, used as a parking garage for its last 60 years. It was an unusual building, brick and stucco with a vaguely art-deco shape, though there really wasn't much left of it except a roof and a chimney and a basement.

Another was a small cluster of Victorian commercial buildings on Central, one with a round brick window, like those you see in the Old City a couple of blocks down the street. One had been a saloon, another a blacksmith's shop. They were the only remnant of the old Bowery south of Commerce.

There were other buildings on the block, most prominently a couple of early 20th-century industrial buildings facing State. Only architectural enthusiasts would call the buildings beautiful, though some did. Beautiful or not, downtown seems diminished without them. Now, from the east side of the central business district, it looks as if downtown was never much more than Gay Street.

Lined with demolition and parking lots, State Street's looking more and more like a ragged access road. It seems an odd fate for this street, which was once central to urban commerce and even state government.

A century ago, one of Knoxville's grandest hotels, the Palace, was on State. A century earlier, Tennessee's "first capitol" was here: Anthony's Tavern, as it was known when the legislature was out of session, was torn down in the '20s for a parking lot.

Four years ago, State Street looked like it was on its way back. The largest building torn down for the Justice Center, a circa 1915 four-story brick building with a big basement, was in the process of an ambitious renovation. The old UT warehouse, previously Tennessee Mine & Mill, had been purchased by Paul and Marsha Trausch, a husband-wife development team, who intended to renovate them as condominiums. Originally from Chicago, the Trausches have a fine track record as some of the most successful developers of the Old City. The well renovated (and fully occupied) building that houses Earth To Old City is one of theirs.

The State Street building might have been an ideal place for residences, a block from Gay Street, but with easy access to Neyland Drive and the interstate. "It was in excellent shape," Trausch says. "Thick hardwood floors, walls 12 and a half inches thick. It was real quiet, well constructed. You can't build a building like that today."

The Trausches bought the vacant building in '95, when the rest of us weren't paying much attention to that block. Moving quickly, they hired maverick architect Buzz Goss to plan a full renovation of the interior for 16 bedrooms' worth of apartments on the two upper floors. A lawyer wanted to move into the second floor. The first floor Trausch would develop commercially, as he did with his building in the Old City. They built a new parking lot adjacent to the building to accommodate the residents.

However, he put his plans for the State Street property on hold in 1996 when he discovered the neighborhood was in the likely footprints of the Next Big Steps. "The city threw one thing after another at us," Trausch says. First, it was a convention center, then a baseball stadium, neither of which, of course, were built there. Trausch didn't give up on the building altogether until '98, when the county acquired the block and demolished it for a new jail. Of course, it wasn't built, either.

You can't say you were surprised. Tearing down interesting buildings for nothing is a municipal tradition here. Several historic buildings downtown have been demolished for developers who later changed their minds and didn't build anything. A couple come to mind: the Edison Theatorium, Knoxville's first permanent movie theater, demolished in 1965 for the Chamber of Commerce headquarters, which was finally built several blocks away; the legendary 1872 Staub's Opera House, demolished in 1956 for a modern Miller's superstore, which was never built at all.

Demolitions seem to come through right on time; building projects often don't. The Next Big Steps may accomplish glorious things in the future, but judging by the last four years, the big steps might as well have been left by a clumsy giant stumbling around downtown, squashing and scaring the small residents and entrepreneurs who, just a few years ago, seemed to be transforming the place.

August 31, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 35
© 2000 Metro Pulse