The Farragut Hotel has been a topic of discussion for years among people interested in downtown development. The most likely scenario for the beautiful building seemed to be condos at one time, then apartments when the economy took a downturn and people began to rent. A couple of years ago that option was examined by the owner of the building and rejected. And that’s a good thing. Because, though few thought it remotely likely, the use many of us dreamed about was the building being returned to what it was in the beginning: a hotel. It seemed impossibly far-fetched.
Those years of speculating and wishing made the announcement by the city this past Friday both a surprising and an exciting one. It stated, “Representatives of Halo Hospitality Group, based near Sacramento, Calif., will be in Knoxville part of next week to talk with City of Knoxville officials and others about their proposal to restore the historic Farragut Hotel in the 500 block of South Gay Street. The potential developers are proposing restoring the historic property to a 190-room full-service hotel.”
A public meeting and tour of the building was scheduled for yesterday at 5:00 PM, and a crowd of seventy-five to a hundred people crowded into the meeting room at the East Tennessee History Center. Brian Larson President of Halo Hospitality and Asset Management and Tom Cologna of Pacifica Capital Investments addressed the crowd about their vision for the building and the hurdles awaiting them on the project. They also noted the size of the crowd as a surprise indicating the city told them there might be “eight people” present. I’m not sure why anyone continues to be surprised at the level of interest in downtown development.
Mr. Larson spoke of his ties to Knoxville in the World’s Fair era. He returned to Knoxville a couple of years ago to look at the Farragut for its owner with an eye toward apartments. That didn’t seem feasible, but he was taken with Knoxville and what was happening downtown, remembering why he loved it all those years ago. He began to examine the possibility of returning the Farragut to it’s former glory. Built in 1917 it played host to celebrities and dignitaries before its later twentieth century demise. After serving as office space for some years, it is now empty except for The French Market which occupies a small portion of the first floor.
He also talked of a need to emotionally connect with his projects and indicated this is one he’s excited about. He noted that he loves the urban experience and that is where his passion and experience have been focused.
Tom Cologna, educated and based in Sacramento for twenty-four years, has no connections to Knoxville, but has worked with Mr. Larson on other projects and was invited to join this development project. He indicated that Sacramento is similar to Knoxville in many respects and he feels Knoxville has a space for a successful historic hotel. The project will involve “seven layers of financing,” which will be arduous but, they believe, workable. Both men indicated it would require a public/private partnership, which no doubt means at least some tax deferment, if not more direct public money.
Repeatedly the men insisted that the historical context of the hotel would be respected though, as they pointed out, hotel rooms in 1917 were well short of luxurious and their rooms would be much more comfortable. The emphasis was on financial caution but with a quality build.
The design will include a ballroom and about 3600 square feet of meeting space which will be on the second floor and will include the beautiful oak-paneled room we later toured. It was one of the few rooms which appear to have been allowed to retain the original architectural finishes. Mr. Larson noted that much has been lost, but all that’s remaining and could be, would be preserved.
A design team out of Memphis will be assisting and the plans include the 190 hotel rooms with the possibility of some suites on the top floors. A full-service restaurant will also be included. While the hotel will not be branded, it was noted that it would be similar to an Autograph Hotel by Marriot.
The walk around the interior of the first two floors of the hotel didn’t reveal much. The Oak Room has the potential to be beautiful. The other floors and ceilings are a mess. A service elevator will likely have to be added, which will be a large undertaking. The rooms originally had higher ceilings and those will be re-captured. For the most part it seems the rooms will be the same as the rooms were originally withing the building.
It was an unusual roll-out. I’ve never seen a developer be quite so open with reporters and the public. To be certain, there was some salesmanship happening. The project has to be approved by City Council. The developers want public help of some sort, so we were part of the drama. Still, I’ve never seen anyone else do anything like it. Mr. Larson indicated they have held public forums with projects in the past. He said they want to hear what is important to the community and would love, particularly, to hear from people who stayed in the hotel in its previous incarnation. He backed the statement up by offering his email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
The statement was made a couple of times – once by Bob Whetsel on WATE – that Knoxville doesn’t have an historical hotel. I think there’s some slightly unfair hair-splitting going on there. The Hotel Oliver is in an older building than the Farragut and it has been completely renovated into a beautiful boutique hotel. Granted it wasn’t historically a hotel and it is much smaller, but still it seemed a bit of a slight to say that we have nothing.
Also, little was said of the French Market which has kept the building from being empty for several years. I spoke to Allen and Susan Tate and asked what this meant for them. They are still on the early part of a fifteen year lease, so they don’t expect to go anywhere. That’s a fact that makes me happy, though it’s anybody’s guess what construction would mean to the business. For an excellent business that’s been a part of downtown revitalization for nearly six years, I felt they could have been acknowledged just a bit more.
So, will it happen? Well, it appears to have a better chance now than at anytime in the last generation. The fact that we can have the conversation and no one is laughing says something. I’ll say that I have hopes for the proposal. The next few months will likely tell the story as the financial issues are addressed. It’s unlikely much activity will become obvious before very late this year or early next year even if all goes well. So, I’m hopeful. What do you think?