A short history of a threatened building
by Jack Neely
I've always wondered who owned the melancholy five-story brick building at Union and Walnut, and what would become of it. It's a pretty place of the neoclassical style, with arched windows; most of its storefronts are occupied and often busy, especially Pete's during lunch hours, but its upper floors have been boarded up for as long as I can remember.
You can see it from several blocks away; it's one of the buildings you notice as you're coming into the city from the north. Until a few months ago, it still had painted on its side a colorful old sign, stenciled in the lettering of the 1930s, UNION MILK & GROCERY. I once wrote an admiring column about that, but I'm afraid it didn't do any good. Sometime last year, someone in charge thought that side of the building would look better painted a flat black.
Last summer I interviewed one of the architects of the Worsham Watkins project, plotted for right across the street, and he speculated that one promising spin-off of the project might be that it would encourage the owners to realize this old building's potential and fix it up, perhaps as condominiums. As all the buildings around it have been fixed up, it has remained stubbornly unrenovated.
Earlier this month, Home Federal announced that they'd clear the building out by next March. They say they don't want to fix it up and they don't want to sell it. I hear they want to demolish it.
I hope that's not true. Even with its upper floors unrenovated and empty, there's no other place in town that feels more like a real downtown than this little stretch of Union. Close together there's a shoe-repair place, a vintage clothing shop, a dry cleaner, a busy restaurant. The Union Avenue Barber Shop, with its ancient barber chairs, is the best place in town to hear a joke.
Outside on the sidewalk, barbers and cobblers laugh and smoke cigarettes and holler at friends on a sunny Friday morning, as women have a look at the dresses on display on the sidewalk. Here, loitering is a pleasure.
The big building on the corner has been here since about 1904. For some years it was an apartment building, a sort of long-term hotel called Sprankle Flats. From Altoona, Pennsylvania, young businessman Benjamin Sprankle moved to Knoxville back in the 1880s, just because it looked like a city about to bloom, and because it was full of Republicans.
The first of several buildings he built, Sprankle Flats must have been a high-toned place when it went up. Its residents tended to be pretty well-heeled sorts: insurance executives, surgeons, dentists, judges. Some doctors kept their offices right on the same floors where they lived. Alfred Day, president of the prosperous Sanford-Day Iron Works, lived here around 1907. Even Benjamin Sprankle himself lived here for several years, on the top floor.
He was a busy man, involved in lots of real-estate developments around the city. He developed suburban neighborhoods in South Knoxville and Bearden; it was Ben Sprankle who named Sutherland Avenue for the minister at Second Presbyterian, a close family friend.
In his trademark bow tie, Sprankle was well known for his checkers game, the lemonade he served here in his office, and for his love of poetry. He was fond of entertaining children with his dramatic recitation of "The Charge of the Light Brigade."
By the time of World War I, Sprankle Flats, subdivided, was becoming a more populous but probably more modest place, occupied by clerks, cooks, salesmen. James Agee's novel A Death In the Family opens with a scene, circa 1916, at the Majestic Theater on Gay Street, as Rufus laughs at Chaplin films there with his dad. For whatever it's worth, the Majestic's projectionist at that time lived here in the Sprankle Building.
In the '20s, it was more of a working-class place: switchmen, machinists, auto mechanics, widows. The Sprankle's once-roomy apartments got even more numerous and, presumably, much smaller. By 1930, the building, which had originally had only seven residential units, had 52. Soon after that, it was apparently acquired by another Sprankle property, the Park Hotel, just around the corner on Walnut. Maps of the 1930s show the buildings connected, as if it's all just one hotel. They tore down the Park Hotel about 10 years ago, but you can still see the scar where it was connected to the Sprankle.
By then, Mr. Sprankle was at work on more modern buildings. The biggest of them, just across Walnut, would be known as the New Sprankle, and would serve as the first headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Some said old Ben Sprankle himself was partly responsible for TVA establishing its headquarters in Knoxville.
Today we call the New Sprankle Building the "Pembroke." For people who didn't know Mr. Sprankle, it's probably a more marketable name. The Pembroke has been renovated and fully occupied as an upscale residence for years. Meanwhile, the Old Sprankle's been so nearly forgotten that when people discuss demolishing it, its name doesn't come up.
At the street level of the old apartment building, business is still brisk.
Pete's Coffee House is there, and it's one of the oldest restaurant spaces in Knoxville. By several other names, it has been a restaurant for about 80 years. You can tell by its stamped-tin ceiling. It's not renovated or reconstructed, as they are in some trendier places; it's just still there. It opened as Warwick's Cafe around 1920, and then was the Darr-Ann Eat Shop.
The place was known as Herbert Weaver's Grill in 1937 when it was briefly famous. Early that year a nationally popular Scripps-Howard columnist named Ernie Pyle dropped in and discovered that one of Weaver's employees back in the kitchen was the last surviving slave of a U.S. president. The old man, whose name was William Andrew Johnson, was known as Uncle Bill. A pastry chef, he made pies here at Weaver's, and still remembered clearly the days when he had been a boy slave, and later a house servant, for the family of Andrew Johnson. He even accompanied them to the White House. Of all the people who worked in this building in 1937, Uncle Bill was probably the only one older than Ben Sprankle.
Ernie Pyle interviewed Johnson here in the restaurant, in the back room that's still crowded at lunchtime today. He described the interview in his national column, and it caught the attention of a couple of his readers: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Moved by Pyle's column, the first couple invited Johnson to be a guest in the White House.
Pyle later described that visit, during which the president visited with the Union Avenue pastry chef, who reminisced about his own days in the White House 70 years earlier, and the president presented him with a silver-headed cane. Pyle said it was the happiest he ever made anybody.
That's one of those stories that has meant something to me, and I think about it often when I go into Pete's for breakfast or lunch. Johnson, the ex-slave, continued working in the kitchen here until not long before he died, at the age of 87. By that time, Pyle was making his name as probably the best war correspondent of his era, and was on the job in 1945 when he was killed by a Japanese sniper in the final weeks of the war.
Of all the rumors associated with the Worsham Watkins plan, probably the most exciting, and the touchiest, is the possibility that it might induce the Scripps corporation to move its national headquarters to the proposed tower on Union Avenue, across from Pete's Coffee Shop.
I always thought that if Scripps did move its headquarters right here to Union Avenue, some of its executives might be interested that the little cafe across the street had an intimate connection with the most famous reporter in the syndicate's history.
Maybe I'm wrong about that, and maybe nobody else thinks much about that sort of thing. In any case, it sounds like Home Federal has other plans for the place.
By the way, Benjamin Sprankle, who helped develop Knoxville's suburbs, even tried living out there, but he apparently missed Union Avenue. He kept his offices on the ground floor and, as an old widower, moved back. He lived upstairs in the more modest three-story building next door to the original Sprankle Flats.
Sprankle was still living in this building on Union in 1950, long after it was fashionable for millionaires to live on Union Avenue. He died here in his walkup apartment that year, at the age of 91.
March 29, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 13
© 2001 Metro Pulse