Last Sunday afternoon was one of those little gifts we get during Knoxville winters: a day in February which is inexplicably spring-like. We know it isn’t going to last, but at least for the moment we’ve got the warmth of an east Tennessee sun. So, of course, I went for a walk.
I didn’t intend to walk to the McClung Warehouses, but as I walked, I realized I’d missed a couple of days of photographing it and decided I should get a final photograph. I first shot it from the Gay Street viaduct but, of course, that meant I was looking directly into the sun and it was still too high for that to be a good thing, so I decided to walk down Jackson and cross the parking lot, walk out on the railroad tracks and take some pictures from there.
I noticed some young boys playing in the rail yard, throwing stones and acting like ten-year-old and twelve-year-old boys will act – in other words about like a grown man. Throwing the rocks looked like fun. It honestly concerned me, at first. The machinery was stilled, but objects small and large, from bricks to walls could be unstable. Then I realized a woman, who I presumed to be their mother, was walking with them and taking photographs.
We passed each other and I stared into the maw of the massive building. Even in its reduced state it loomed large. Gargantuan, monster-like machinery seemed to doze as I approached, threatening to awake with a roar. As the family faded into the distance and I was alone with the building, it felt a little creepy. In a fascinating way.
I saw the wide ruts made by one of the machines through the mountains of brick, plaster, and wooden beams. They lead to the interior of the remaining portion of the building. I felt compelled to follow the ruts and it didn’t feel unsafe, though if my mother was alive she’d remind me she’d heard that from me before. Still, it seemed like an obvious thing to walk around inside.
One of the things that struck me is the sheer massiveness of the original buildings. Probably ninety percent or more of the buildings are gone, but what’s left is still overpowering – at least when you are alone in the dead silence. It’s funny the effect ruins have on me. And that’s what they felt like – ancient ruins, remnants of a much older civilization.
When I walk through ruins, I can never help but think of the people who were responsible for building the structure or structures in the first place – people not unlike ourselves living their lives in the best way they could. But they left something. In this case, they left a powerfully built structure. The walls were several feet thick in spots with layers of brick end-to-end. Built before the advent of the cement block, it was difficult to make a wall stand that high in that era.
There’s a sad beauty among the ruins. Maybe it’s the confluence of structural power and failure, of hopes from the past and defeats of the present. Maybe it’s the power of nature over humanity, though in this case maybe it’s more the power of man’s carelessness and greed over his quest to build something that will last forever.
And this building probably would have lasted forever. To make these mighty walls fall took hard work on the part of many people. Throughout history we’ve shown a desire to build an edifice that will make us immortal. Perhaps the only urge more powerful is that to destroy. Some generations are known more for what they built, others more for what they destroyed. How will ours be remembered. Parts of this buildings stood for over one hundred years as a testament to a long ago generation. What will be said of us and our generation in a hundred years? That we built or that we destroyed?
I’ll just let the photographs run to close the post – I’ve got far more images than words, today. I’ve not seen the great ruins of the world, but I’ve seen some. I really don’t know why I find them so compelling. Maybe some of you are looking at these photographs and wondering what I see in these piles of bricks. That’s fair. For those of you who are interested, here’s a link to an article about my favorite ruins of all I’ve seen.