Are we still tearing down Knoxville? St. John’s Episcopal says, "Yes!" at 710 and 712 Walnut Street

710 and 712 Walnut Street, Knoxville, November 2011

I’m no historian and, though I’ve been coming to downtown Knoxville since the nineteen-eighties, I’ve only lived downtown for just over two years. I can’t call the names of the buildings that have been lost over the years in the manner that Kim Trent or Jack Neely (whose latest comment on this issue can be found here) would be able to effortlessly recite. Still, a walk around downtown reveals large swaths of surface parking lots and each of those plots once held buildings where people lived, worked and enjoyed life in the city. As each of those parking lots emerged, someone involved likely proclaimed that we were making progress, moving forward into the modern era.

Sometime in the last decade or so that trend has reversed in our city. We’ve come to better understand what was lost and to more highly value the older structures that remain. Largely, Knoxvillians have come to value their city and its history. While not every building is considered beautiful or, perhaps, even historic, the idea of demolition has increasingly become anathema to so many people, one might assume that era in Knoxville’s past was simply that: past.

Close-up of 712 Walnut Street, Knoxville

In this context, it comes as a surprise, if not a shock to hear that a group housed in one of the most architecturally interesting buildings, St. Johns Episcopal Church, would move to destroy two 1920’s era buildings at 710 and 712 Walnut Street. St. Johns has, of course, participated in the destruction of other buildings downtown as they expanded their parking lots over the years. But churches are not perfect and historical behavior may not necessarily be fairly judged by current mores. Times change. But then, they submitted a request that is reminiscent of that prior era.

The contention on the part of the church is that the buildings have deteriorated severely and are in need of very expensive repairs the church cannot afford. Also noted was the fact that the Interdenominational Bible Institute which has used the buildings is moving out. The minister has been quoted as saying the buildings are “ugly.” Further noted was that they are particularly ugly when viewed from the rear.

View of 710 and 712 Walnut from the rear

Of course, they are only visible from the rear because the buildings which used to hide that view were destroyed by the church years ago. Further, one has to wonder how much deterioration happened on the church’s watch? Was this a purposeful deterioration simply to eventually rid themselves of buildings they did not want?

When I first heard about the request it was assumed the church wanted more parking. Knowing that would not be received well, plans were drawn up and presented that include a fence and a courtyard which they suggest will be accessible to the public. They further imply they will build on the spot at an undetermined time in the future. I would not be surprised to learn that the same statement was made about previous demolitions downtown including many sites that remain parking lots even now.

712 Walnut, Home of the Interdenominational Bible Institute
It seems the whole thing has happened suddenly and with no opportunity for groups such as Knox Heritage to find alternatives. I find it completely inconceivable that someone would not want those buildings if they were offered for sale. Buildings in worse condition have certainly been preserved by people who want to do so. I think the smaller of the two buildings could make an amazingly beautiful residence which is what it was origninally. With the inlaid patterns in the brick, its arched entryway and its proximity to the heart of the city, someone would likely be inclined to make it home.

So, this is another case where we have to decide who we are and who we want to be. Are we people who continue to tear down the past? The Downtown Design Review Board makes the next decision this Wednesday at 4:00 at their meeting in the Small Assembly Room at the City County Building. The recommendation on the table is for demolition. I’m taking off work early to be there and I’m hoping the decision hasn’t already been made. Why not consider joining me there?

Interestingly and somewhat ironically, there are two other meetings I wanted to mention which also happen this week. The first is that CBID (the Central Business Improvement District) is beginning quarterly night meetings which, I assume, are in response to the concerns of some downtown residents that our voices aren’t heard at the monthly meetings because they are held in the middle of the day. The plan is for Residential Quality of Life meetings which will allow residents an ongoing point of communication with CBID. I hope so. I’m a little disappointed that a regular meeting each quarter wasn’t moved to the evening. I’m hoping this is an informative meeting in which major efforts and issues of CBID are elucidated and the majority of the members of the board are present to hear from residents in some organized fashion. This meeting will be held at 5:30 on November 16 in the Knoxville Chamber/CBID office at 17 Market Square.

The other meeting is the Knox Heritage Annual Meeting and Preservation Awards to be held Thursday night, November 17, at the Bijou. Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation will speak and awards for outstanding preservation efforts will be presented.

Come to all three meetings and be involved in your city.
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