The Armature Building on Jackson Avenue, just around the corner from the 100 block and a bit to the west, has to be one of the coolest conversions in a downtown full of them. I first wrote about it in March of 2012, when Knox Heritage and David Dewhirst opened it up for a tour. If you go back and look at those photographs you’ll feel how hard it was to conceive the space becoming anything useful. Large, industrial and concrete, it was beyond my imagination.
Later, in February of this year, I was offered a tour as some of the units were being finished. The transformation was amazing. It was hard to picture how those spaces were the same as the leaky, bare images in that first article. Finally, a few months ago some of our friends moved into one of the units and, now that they are settled in, they offered me the chance to photograph their unit. As we were making arrangements, Jack Neely published one of his great pieces on the street and the neighborhood, including a portion about the Armature.
I met my friend Sarah a few days later and we started, however with a look around the outside of the building while Dan hung out with the napping Alex inside the apartment. There’s plenty to see all around the building. The small, private decks and balconies are slowly being personalized as the new residents make the spaces their own. People walk or play with dogs at every turn in the rear of the building which, as Jack noted, is a very unique courtyard. Limbs woven into a fan design offer privacy between the decks, stones harvested from other reclamation projects cover the ground and a small, thriving ecosystem of families takes form in every direction.
The ecosystem theme carries through the wild hillside behind the building. Mostly covered in kudzu and trees, the greenery follows the steep hillside up the bluff that is crested by Vine Avenue. Sarah pointed out a gopher hole just behind their unit. Access to the courtyard is gained either by walking around the western end of the building or, more interestingly, by walking behind Jackson Avenue and entering under the viaduct.
The lower level of the building fronts the parking lot behind Jackson Avenue and several of the units have a private patio space that looks out toward the rail yard. These are protected by a chain-link fence. The alley that runs from under the viaduct and into the courtyard includes second floor units with faux balconies which include doors opening into the space. Pretty strange or cool, depending on your tastes.
I know from my previous tour that the various apartments differ greatly from one another. The number of bedrooms, arrangement of the rooms (some are on an open second floor in the unit), the size and, of course, the views make for very different homes. One of the unifying themes is a light touch on the finishing. An effort was made to preserve the industrial feel by saving particular industrial elements which could have been finished over to make a more polished space.
Just in the small area I examined, the shed extending over the back was preserved as it sat, as much as possible with a few concessions to safety. A rusted come-along of some sort hangs where it was once used. A sign noting “Eye Wash Station” hangs in its place on the outside between the apartment I visited and the next. It clearly wasn’t put there for decoration. For those of you who may not have worked in an industrial setting, an eye-wash station is an emergency spot to douse ones eyes should they become contaminated with chemicals or lime or any other industrial hazard. You don’t want to ever need the eye wash station, but it’s nice to have one should the occasion ever arise.
Inside their apartment, the entry leads to an open main room which includes kitchen, dining room and den, if you are thinking of a traditional home. Good light enters from the west, a wall which sports a clever, space-efficient, mounted bicycle. A ridge of exposed storage sits above the bathroom and hallways just to the rear of the front room. The room includes the door frame from the original industrial door, towering around the newer external entry door. Unused wires from another era sit along side the piping containing the new electrical fixtures, fully exposed and contributing to the industrial motif.
There are two bedrooms, one slightly larger and lighted from the west. The smaller room is completely interior and the walls were finished in such a way as to leave the ancient, massive wooden beams exposed. In between the two bedrooms is a simple bathroom with a tub and a shower.
These apartments were not intended for people who are looking for fine finishes in an elegant urban atmosphere. They are much more real than that. I can completely imagine that some people would not want to live in the semi-finished, industrial space. I can also imagine with some certainty that others would live no where else once they had seen the cool, industrial apartments. I suspect that these are very similar to what we might expect in the White Lily Building a few blocks away when it is finished next year.
The Armature includes 76 units and the Metro Pulse article indicated all but five of them are finished and occupied. It’s an amazing story from the beginnings of the building as a a functional manufacturing center to its disuse and deterioration and through its rejuvenation and modern occupation. Buildings may not be forever, but they can really be for a lot longer than we often assume, given a little care and a small amount of vision.