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The Big Marble House

A great building in search of a purpose

by Jack Neely

You've probably heard that the big new thing in Nashville is an art museum called the Frist Center. Downtown on Broadway, it's a renovated post office building from the '30s, probably the last era that the government thought post offices should be both impressive and pretty.

The Frist has already seen some great shows, but staffers have reportedly been a little embarrassed that, no matter what they have to show, what visitors talk about is the big old marble building.

Many of you have already visited it. And many of you experienced a strange sense of deja vu as you approached it. The Frist Center's design is nearly identical to that of the Knoxville post office on Main Street.

A few years ago, when we polled architects about their favorite buildings, several told us this was the best-looking building in Knoxville. Today it's mostly empty.

U.S. POST OFFICE AND COURT HOUSE is still inscribed in this marble that turns pink when it rains. And they still sell stamps and sort mail inside. But this location was demoted to the status of "branch" when the official new post office was opened in an industrial building off Weisgarber about 15 years ago.

Knoxville's post office, built in 1932, was finished about a year ahead of its Nashville counterpart now known as the Frist. A lot of folks guess that it's a New Deal project, and it does look like one, but it's actually a little older than the New Deal. The building was planned under the Hoover administration, maybe as proof that even Republicans can spend a lot of federal money on something that's lasting and worthwhile. The name of Ogden Mills, Hoover's beleaguered Secretary of the Treasury, is still prominent in the exterior marble on the building's corner at Main and Walnut.

The building looks impressive to remind folks who was in charge. In 1932, at the depths of the depression, many feared a general political collapse. A big, solid building offered Knoxvillians a confidence that the banks couldn't.

You might almost jump to the conclusion that the one in Nashville was based on the one in Knoxville. Nashville architecture critic Christine Kreyling did some research into the subject and learned that both post offices were designed from similar models approved by the Treasury Department. The originator of the Treasury Dept. plan was apparently the French-born architect Paul Cret, the great practitioner of the "stripped modern" style, also known as classic moderne.

The model allowed for some local deviation; Kreyling says that the federal government was anxious to use its money to employ local professionals, to prevent any assumptions that they were throwing taxpayers' money away. Baumann and Baumann were the architects who gave the plan some distinctiveness, and local marble sculptor Albert Milani carved the big eagles on the facade. The interior wrought-iron work has a sort of corn-shuck theme reflected throughout the building.

Other cities may have similar buildings, Kreyling says, but Knoxville's post office is the only one she knows of that's so similar to the Frist Center. She was surprised that the two are nearly the same size, in spite of the fact that Nashville was, and is, a much bigger city than Knoxville. Knoxville's building served a dual purpose, as post office and courthouse, but the Frist Center was pure P.O.

That difference in function accounts for some of the strengths of the Knoxville building. The second floor of the Nashville building was mainly a mail-sorting area—an industrial space not designed to be seen. But on our second floor, we had a federal courtroom. Many local lawyers who've argued cases there agree it was the prettiest courtroom in the region. It's been empty since they moved the works over to the Whittle building next door a couple of years ago.

I remembered it from when I worked for lawyers in the '80s, but I got postal employee David Carter to show me around up there. Everything except for the post office's first-floor corner is completely empty and not open to the public. You need a key to run the elevator.

The courtroom is right in the middle of this building, in the center of the second floor, with another floor above. That's why it's surprising to see sunlight in here. The courtroom is flanked with a dozen tall windows that let in the sunlight through crimson curtains via courtyard-like light shafts. Look around, and everything's polished wood, much of it ornately carved: the judge's desk, the witness box, the jury box, still with 12 cushioned seats. The gallery of wooden benches is not huge, but has seating for over 100 spectators. Unlike the fluorescent-lit, windowless court cubicles across the street, this is the classic courtroom, the one you see in movies. This was the site of countless moonshine cases, drug-trafficking cases, bank-fraud cases. The Butchers were here.

You might not notice when you first walk in that in a big circle on the high plaster ceiling is a colorful painting of Justice, the lady with the scales. Bigger than life-size, Justice is dark-haired, buxom, inviting, even a little sultry in a moderne sort of way, lying with a book marked LEX and holding her scales to the side, as if she's had enough of them for this afternoon. She is unmasked.

"That's the only Lady of Justice without a blindfold in East Tennessee," says David Carter. "The artist thought she ought to be looking out over the mountains and valleys." Circling her in a big motto is an esoteric reflection about the relationship between "just laws and true policy."

Behind is the judge's handsome library, now stripped of its books. And down the hall are the holding cells and a couple of smaller, simpler courtrooms. One still has the Miranda rights typed up and taped to a counter, convenient for overstressed U.S. marshals.

There's a third floor, too, which not too long ago housed the offices of congressmen and senators. Fred Thompson's name is still on one door. You could have visited John Duncan's office and not known that he had a secret refuge for when things got to be too much: a spiral staircase in the back of the office leads to an enclosed fourth-floor crow's nest, with windows for viewing the city from all directions.

The last offices moved across the street to the Whittle building, a.k.a., the Howard Baker Federal Courthouse, a couple of years ago. Carter tells me he's heard from several former tenants who tell him they miss being in this beautiful, spacious, quirky old building.

Its destiny is unclear. The post office means to sell the building and lease back their corner of it. It would make a great museum, like the Frist, but we already have a downtown art museum, and a history museum, already expanding in an even older marble post-office building, three blocks away. It still has that well-appointed courtroom, of course, and in recent years there's been talk of both Knox County or the state supreme court using it. They say the Frist Center sat unused for a decade before people had a clear idea of what to do with it.

Our footsteps echo in the empty marble corridors. Carter says that sometimes when he comes in early at 5 a.m., he'll be making his rounds and he can hear a door slam up there somewhere.

He's not saying there are ghosts in here. The place doesn't seem ghostly. It doesn't even seem old. The building looks like it still has a few centuries left on it. Maybe they're the spirits of Knoxville yet to come.

August 23, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 34
© 2001 Metro Pulse