I’ve said very little about the McClung Warehouses since the fire. Partially that is because there’s not much to say. The tragedy pretty much played out in public. Additionally, I wanted to let a little time pass, document the destruction in photographs and bid a final farewell when it was over. Honestly, I’ve see all I can take, for now, and there’s little left. Today I’ll share progressive pictures of the demolition from near the beginning through last weekend.
I’d thought to write more about them than I’ll do in the end. Jack Neely wrote everything that needed to be said, documenting the rise of the buildings, starting in 1893 through the second fire that destroyed what meager hope survived that they might be saved. If you missed that article, you owe it to yourself to take a few minutes and read it. I learned from it, among other things, that the McClung buildings were once much more than warehouses, harboring a thriving business on a busy downtown street.
The recent history of the building, as included in the Metro Pulse article, follows the story through the 1990’s when they became vacant and were purchased by Mark Saroff in 1993 for $1. The years that followed saw false starts, some with more promise than others, but with no progress on preserving, let alone rehabilitating the buildings. Developers tried to help. Knox Heritage tried to help.
The city made its first noise about eminent domain in 2002, but the Ashe administration did not execute the threat and take the property. In 2005 the threat came from the county, citing back taxes, but they didn’t act. Mr. Saroff sued the county and Stacy Campfield portrayed him as a victim of government run amok. Property rights were proclaimed loudly on talk radio.
A massive fire in 2007 destroyed the majority of the property. No cause was ever determined. By 2010 Mr. Saroff was in bankruptcy. The city finally obtained the property in 2013 by paying Mr. Saroff 1.45 million dollars for the property he purchased for $1. Less than eight months later the remaining portion burned severely enough to be declared unusable and the demolition began. No cause has been determined for the second fire, as far as I’ve heard.
Could something have been done differently to insure the continued existence of this once vibrant building? What if Mayor Ashe had taken it in 2003? What if Mayor Burchett had given the go-ahead in 2005? Of course, one could ask, what if Mark Saroff had been possible for anyone to work with? What if the property had been secured better? We’ll never know.
So what happens now? The city says it intends to proceed with accepting bids from developers to revive the property. It may be a hard sell. The hillside is very steep at that point and any building will have to have a large under structure that sits below the grade of the road, meaning a very serious expenditure just to get a building up to ground-level. Will the site really be worth the large expenditure at this time?
So, we could see the property sit undeveloped for years, which is what I expect. It’s possible that someone would propose apartments or some other structure, though I can’t imagine what the options would be beyond that. Would that type of development yield a project of high architectural quality or would it look like the many cheap apartment complexes in Fort Sanders or west Knoxville?
Given how long it has been since any quality new construction has happened in downtown Knoxville, maybe we’d be better served by letting it sit until financing and city development makes a quality building more likely. We don’t need an ugly building sitting on that hillside for every passing tourist to see from the interstate. We’ve already tried that for the last twenty years and it didn’t end well.
I took over 150 photographs since the day of the fire and narrowed them to 46 as I prepared this post. I’m including just under half today. The remaining half are taken more or less inside the structure and, since it will be the last chance for such a view, I’ll give those a separate post tomorrow.