Thanks to the kindness of Daniel Odle of Conversion Properties, I recently toured the Tailor Lofts Building at 430 South Gay Street. Renovation and reconstruction is set to begin immediately with a completion date of spring, 2014, putting the project at just over a year. Conversion Properties is managing the project on behalf of John and Janie Johnson family who have owned the building and part owners of the Arby’s for many years. While most of us call it the “Arby’s Building,” it will be re-named “Tailor Lofts,” honoring Slomski Tailors who occupied the third floor for many years and in order to keep some connection to its history.
Any discussion of the building must begin with which floor is which. Since it is built on a dramatically sloping hill from front to back, it’s a bit confusing to determine which is the first floor. Most of us would likely assume the first floor is off the entrance from Gay Street into the previous Arby’s space. That ignores, however, the fact that the floor below also has an exterior entrance off Union Avenue and will be the primary residential entrance for the entire building. For purposes of the project going forward, the floor with the Union Avenue entrance will be considered the first floor. The floor into the former Arby’s space will be considered the second floor, making the building four stories.
The first floor will include three apartments, two of which will have exterior windows and all of which will enter via the Union Avenue entrance. These and all other units in the building will range from 700 to 1150 square feet with the exception of the private unit to be built for the Johnson family. The plans for this floor and for the second floor as shown on these architectural drawings were tentative and, in fact, have been modified in the two weeks since I saw them, but they give a rough idea of how the space will be configured.
The second floor currently has the former Arby’s tables and benches, but those have been donated to the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission and will soon be removed. The kitchen will be totally gutted and rebuilt, as well, since the ovens and other components are twenty years old or more. A mezzanine will be exposed and access from the main floor will be constructed, adding tremendously to the square footage of that floor.
While some had hoped for the space to increase the variety of downtown retail, it appears the space is likely destined to be a restaurant, though that is not certain. Mr. Odle sited the prime location for a restaurant as one of the drivers in that decision. Its corner space adjacent to other restaurants makes it appealing for that purpose. The hope is that a unique downtown dining experience might be offered. It should have seating for about 140 once the mezzanine is opened and this would make it one of the largest restaurants downtown, with approximately twice the seating capacity of Tupelo Honey, though considerably smaller than Downtown Grill and Brewery.
Looking up on this floor revealed a couple of surprises. First, there are tin ceiling tiles which will be fully exposed when the drop ceiling is removed. Most of these have been painted over and all will have to be removed to bring the building up to fire code by placing fire barriers between floors. As many as possible will be preserved and likely will be used throughout the building as decorative accents. The tiles are in evidence on other floors, as well.
The second surprise on that floor is found when looking up through the drop ceiling near the Gay Street entrance. Antique transom glass remains in place on the front and side corner. Currently obscured by the Arby’s sign, it will once again be exposed, returning the building facade to its original appearance. The building dates to the late 1800′s and is the oldest on the block, the others having been destroyed in the “million dollar fire” in 1897. The front facade, however, dates to a more recent era: the 1920′s.
A stairway leads from Gay Street to the upper two floors and it will be preserved as a secondary entrance for residents who will primarily enter and use the elevator on the Union Avenue side. It was up this stairway that clients would climb to the entrance of Slomski Tailor. The doorway to the former business space still includes the Slomski logo. This is the floor with the logo visible from Gay Street, and while every effort will be made to preserve as much as possible, those windows will have to be replaced. A refurbished logo might be included on the new glass as a hat tip to the previous occupant and namesake of the building.
The third floor will host three additional apartments very similar to those on the first floor. The front unit, in the location of the former tailor, will include windows along Gay Street and Union. The center unit will include arched windows overlooking Union Avenue and the back apartment, which houses old air conditioning components at this time, will feature views of the mountains.
The fourth floor will include a larger unit on the front side and features the best views of Gay Street and Union. Included in the plans at this time is a loft to increase square footage. Interestingly, this floor has remnants of wallpaper which appears to be a faux leather lithographic design. The oddity there is that this type wallpaper typically found usage in residences as opposed to retail or office space. No evidence has been located to suggest the building included residences at any time in its history. Sorting out this mystery and the history of the building sounds like a job for Jack Neely or John at Knoxville Lost and Found.
This floor will also include three units, giving the building a total of eight residential and one commercial space in its new incarnation. Leases will become available this spring for early 2014 occupancy. It’s a great thing that has happened and it only came to fruition because the Johnson family determined that it would. CBID also provided assistance in the form of a $100,000 facade grant. Other credits for historical buildings will hopefully assist.
The building could have simply been left to fall apart around the one portion that was used. That floor could have been leased once more while deterioration did its work on the other floors, as a recent hole in the roof attests. It would have been easier to take that route and eventually the building would have been lost. I’m thankful that did not happen and that this building, now witnessing a portion of a third different century, may make it to see a fourth.