A Look at the Former Baptist Hospital: Present and Future

Baptist Hospital, Knoxville, April 2014

Baptist Hospital, Knoxville, April 2014

As I said a couple of days ago, my walk to south Knoxville originally started as a trip to look at the progress of the Baptist Hospital demolition, but then I got distracted, first by CityView and then by Record Day at Disc Exchange. I did, however take a look at the progress on the demolition.

So far, only one end has been removed. The western-most end next to the Henley Street Bridge is gone. This includes one large portion of the building and the helicopter port. It already makes for a strange sight when you look across the river and see the hill behind where that portion of the hospital sat.

Baptist Hospital, Knoxville, October 2013

Baptist Hospital, Knoxville, October 2013

The project seems to be on schedule. According to Josh Flory and Carly Harrington, reporting onthe project last June, the hope was for the first phase of demolition to take place during the first quarter of this year. It came really close. The same article said that the 125-150 million dollar project will include, “up to 350 apartment units, an additional 225 units of student housing and a 150-room hotel,” when completed. The initial phase of construction was slated to be the student housing.

UPDATE: Thanks to Art, who posted a comment below, I’ve included an updated rendering which, you’ll see if you read his comment, Art feels is even less appealing. You can see the original and their description here. The biggest change I noticed is that the hotel component seems to have gone missing. They do describe a mixed-use development with retail, office and living spaces. They also project a completion date for the entire project to be in 2015 which I find difficult to believe.

There are a number of questions and concerns which have been raised about the use and design of the new construction. As to use, one might question the usefulness of more hotel rooms when downtown Knoxville has a relatively low occupancy rate most of the time and plans have been proposed or announced to add additional rooms at four different downtown locations. Even those projects have been questioned. I also wonder whether a hotel across the river would be more desirable than staying in the heart of downtown.

Baptist Hospital, Knoxville, April 2014

Baptist Hospital, Knoxville, April 2014

The need for more student housing has me scratching my head. Student housing has been proposed for the old federal courthouse site, more is being built on campus and the recently completed sorority houses on the western fringe of campus look as if they would hold half the student population. This is not to mention the fact that many students already live all over downtown. The size of the student body has remained stable for some years, I believe, so where are these prospective students coming from?

Others have questioned whether students will want to live that far from campus. It seems a reasonable question. It’s a good hike to many buildings on campus and that’s not very conducive to sleeping in. A number of people have indicated they might not be interested in staying in a hotel or living in a nice apartment in such close proximity to so many students. The need for apartments close to or inside downtown, however, seems to be insatiable.

Rendering of proposed Baptist Hospital Site Redevelopment (via WATE

Original (NOW REVISED – SEE BELOW) Rendering of proposed Baptist Hospital Site Redevelopment (via WATE)

The design of the project has also taken quite a bit of fire in social media. I’m no architect, but if I understand the criticism correctly, there are two primary objections. First, the design is not striking and this is what will be facing our south waterfront for a long time. Related to that is the idea that the design is suburban, not urban, with little to no space for retail or other mixed use. I’ve included the artist renderings from Knoxnews and WATE. What do you think? Urban or suburban? Does it have to be an urban design? Would that be preferable?

Finally, when the demolition began, I was called out online for claiming to be opposed to demolitions generally and supportive of preservation efforts while saying “not a word” of objection to this demolition. It was apparently evidence that I’m not willing to speak out against the people who run this city. It was a little bizarre, but it made me think. Why hadn’t anyone raised a voice against the demolition?


An artists rendering of the proposed Baptist Hospital Site Redevelopment (via Knox News)

ORIGINAL PLAN UPDATED VERSION BELOW: An artist’s rendering of the proposed Baptist Hospital Site Redevelopment (via Knox News)

Most Recent Rendering of the Plans for the Baptist Hospital Site

Most Recent Rendering of the Plans for the Baptist Hospital Site

I’m not sure if I’m rationalizing, here, so if you think I am, feel free to say so, but I think there are several legitimate reasons this didn’t become a preservationist campaign. The building, built in 1948, stood for just over sixty years, which is a long time, but it isn’t the pre-war age that tends to set off alarms. It was striking in that it was one of the tallest buildings in the county at ten stories and 126 feet. I saw it ranked seventh and eleventh on different lists.

First, I think the worst thing that could have happened was for the building to sit empty, a symbol of a dead dream from the last century. Many cities currently sport a back-log of abandoned hospitals and they become an eyesore, a magnet for vandals and homeless residents and they fall off the tax rolls. In our case, it wasn’t just an empty building, it was an empty building sitting on prime real estate in one of our most visible locations.

So much of the destruction of older buildings results in new parking lots or empty spaces, that the idea of having this property become vibrant and useful again made its destruction seem less a loss and more a gain. Finally, it seems to me to be such a difficult task to find enough alternative use for such a massive and specifically built building as a large hospital, that an alternative including demolition seemed much more likely outcome than a total re-purposing of the existing structure.

The entire demolition is anticipated to take nine to twelve months, so we may not see any construction until that is complete. So, what do you think? Was the demolition a good idea? Should the building have been preserved? Is the planned use the best use? What would you rather see there? Do you like the design? If not, what design changes would you propose?




  1. well I’m glad you like the notion I wish more people did, but I disagree there are plenty of parks and greenspaces in downtown and to honest they aren’t even used that much so why do we need more, we need to focus on growing the downtown both vertically and horizontally then their will be more greenspace and parks. There is already a park on the northside of the river which has been expanded and their is a park/greenspace/commons area proposed for the southside, How many do we need? I definitely think this land should be developed as it is, just wish it was a little more verticle.

  2. I like Jay’s notion of a “skyscraper” but Knoxville’s immediate downtown does not necessarily need more density now. Does the capacity of downtown need to be encouraged vertical? or horizontal?
    To me, “downtown” lacks a significant park – a significant open green space that anchors a community and promotes the “publice”.
    Perhaps Knoxville should have taken the site over as a park to stimulate south shore public access, and then offered these “investor/developers” opportunities to spend their $160 million on the Chapman Hwy corridor that would support the south shore.

  3. I’m just saying that all the projects that have finally gotten off the ground lately in downtown seem to be no higher than 5 or 6 stories. It seems weird that projects in the past that were a third or half the value but 4 or 5 times the height never seem to go anywhere. it would be nice to see something 25 to 30 or more stores actually happen. I really hope that this type of development doesn’t happen at the McClung site. I mean like what’s happening at Baptist. Also since condos seem to be so popular downtown I don’t see why we cant get a couple new condo towers hopefully on the McClung site. But in my opinion that site on the old Baptist hospital would have been perfect. I imagine there would have been wonderful views worth millions from a 25th floor condo of the mountains, Tennessee river Boomsday, Downtown Knoxville. They would have looked magnificent on the hill there overlooking the river. Anyhow like others said what is proposed will look heaps better than the hospital. Not against it just saying you know.

  4. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

    Posting for “David O.” who had trouble getting the site to accept his comment, but emailed it to me:

    Greg, you make some good points, and this was a great article with good information. However, I disagree with the idea that this development will bring success to the south bank. I believe this for two reasons.
    1. Just south of the south bank is a tragedy of planning and development. Vestal and the Chapman Hwy corridor are nowhere near any position for supporting this development. It will not find success as long as one has to constantly peep over one’s shoulder at the creepy neighbor behind you. This will be accentuated by the limited, and likely frustrating, access offered by the two (inevitably congested) bridges linking to where the “action” is.
    2. Once again we see land being developed based solely on maximizing ROI (check the developer’s website: nothing but strip malls and a corporation made up of a dozen Vice Presidents). This results in inferior design and construction. The same mentality that brought about the cancerous project at the Fulton Bellows site will spew across the south shore. The same embarrassing architecture now demeaning the UT campus and Cherokee farms will become the most expensive Boomsday seats ever. Because after the novelty wears off this project really offers Knoxville nothing more than profit for a few interested parties….and those parties will have long gone before we realize that this project is a burdensome as an abandoned hospital.
    So, you see in 15 years the life expectancy of this concept and its execution will have already met its demise.

  5. I find the timetable for the demolition completion to be interesting, as I just recently interviewed Rhodes Seeger, V-P of Blanchard/Calhoun for the City People newsletter and he gave me a June, 2014 completion date. This was his exact quote: “We will have all structures down by the end of June.” Also, I thought the city was reportedly suppose to begin on the Suttree Landing Park (near the BnC project) this past winter. Does anyone know what’s going on with the park project? They made a big announcement about it but haven’t heard a word since. I got the impression that the city might have made the announcement, partly to motivate BnC to close on the deal and move forward. You know there was about a seven month time lapse between the point of purchase and closing.

  6. UT students have long lived in complexes behind Shoney’s on Chapman Highway. The name of one was literally “College Park.” As a UT student, it is NOT too far away. But it is correct that non-UT-affiliated residents are unlikely to want to live near students.

  7. You have to remember this is Knoxville, these are the only type of projects that ever materialize. We would never want anything modern and impressive now would we. That wouldn’t fit in with the whole urban wilderness. Basically if you are a greenie or bum or hippie then you are welcome all others may as well figure on moving out.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Slow down, Jay. I’m not sure everyone who likes living downtown or visiting downtown fits one of those categories. We haven’t had a project like this downtown in maybe forever – literally. What was the last $160,000,000 project downtown? Was it multi-use? I think there are some good things about this, though there are likely things that could be better.

  8. I’m glad the zombie hotel is being demolished, but sad Hollywood wasn’t able to make at least one movie in there. Deserted hospitals built 60 years ago are the creepiest, yo!

    I hope the new design is MODERN and progressive and not like the rest of new construction in downtown Knoxville, which is less than inspiring at best. Out of town investors might mean actual $$$ being spent which may result in something interesting. I’m skeptical until I see the final rendering! We need more buildings downtown that look like Barre3 does in Bearden or Dr Nabors in downtown, in my humble opinion!

  9. Thanks for the updated drawings, UG.

    I like the new “central block with wings” design of the apartments. And their 5-story height is classically urban (most of Paris is 5 or 6 stories tall).

  10. “Student housing,” I’ve learned, refers largely to developments that are furnished, built and leased with multiple roommates in mind. Apparently that model is what makes “student housing.”

    As for distance, I don’t think that’s an issue. The spaces will be closer to campus than, say, the Sterchi Lofts which seems to largely cater to students. Same for the apartments above UT Hospital on the ridge (The Woodlands?). So apparently distance isn’t as big an issue as some think. UT students drive. And, as mentioned by someone else, being across Chapman from the remainder of the development is buffered.

    As for the buildings slated for the hospital space, I’m never surprised when what gets built doesn’t resemble what shows up in proposal. Usually disappointed, but no longer surprised.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      I think student housing also often includes a pool and leases that can run concurrent with the academic year – IE 9 month leases are available. One way to stop that is to say “no undergraduates” as they have done at the Medical Arts Building.

  11. Art Wagner says

    I just think it is sad when we end up with three choices on a site like this in Knoxville:
    1) Vacant, useless buildings
    2) A surface parking lot
    3) Cheap, low-rise, interstate-exit style architecture on a prominent bluff overlooking the river and downtown

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      Art, help those of us who aren’t architects: What is it about the current design that isn’t suitable or that supports your third point.

  12. UG, as you know, I am usually on the front lines of decrying demolition in our city. However, this time I feel oddly OK with demolishing an old building. I guess it goes to show that I am not against all demolition, just senseless demolition. I think you summed up the argument for tearing down the hospital best as follows:

    “I think the worst thing that could have happened was for the building to sit empty, a symbol of a dead dream from the last century. Many cities currently sport a back-log of abandoned hospitals and they become an eyesore, a magnet for vandals and homeless residents and they fall off the tax rolls. In our case, it wasn’t just an empty building, it was an empty building sitting on prime real estate in one of our most visible locations.”

    Baptist had a reputation for harboring various infections, particularly staphylococcus. That coupled with the utter creepiness of living in an old hospital would likely have prevented the building from being flipped into housing. Other than medical use, it likely served no purpose.

    Here, we had a developer with a plan and the wherewithal to accomplish it. That distinguishes this from the usual tear it down for a surface parking lot or an unused lot (ST JOHNS!!!).

    I liked the first rendering better than the current proposal, but its not my money building the thing. I think almost anything would be preferable to an empty husk of a hospital or a tarmac of parking spaces.

  13. KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

    I’ve updated the rendering and added a link to the company’s site. It appears the hotel is gone and large amounts of retail and office space have been added. This seems like a net improvement, to me, but Art seems to think that architecturally it is a considerable step back. Thanks for the update and correction, Art.

  14. Chris Eaker says

    The buildings will be much prettier than what we have. I think that’s part of why people are so glad to see those buildings go. First, it was ugly. Second, it was not the best use of that space now that downtown Knoxville has become so hot. Third, it wasn’t historic. Fourth, it was vacant, and as you said, short of another hospital coming in, what good is it to anyone else?

    The developer’s site says there is 40,000 sq. ft of retail space. I don’t know how much that really is, but it sounds like alot. Assuming 2,000 sq. ft. per business, that’s 20 businesses. Some will take less space, some more. I just hope we don’t get another Turkey Creek-like place full of chain stores. That will be a bummer.

    I’m glad to see more apartments. The more we get, the lower the prices will get, theoretically. There is just a shortage now for the demand. There are lots of people who would love to live downtown, but can’t afford it. Truth be told, I think alot of people who live downtown NOW can’t really afford it and leveraged to the hilt, but that’s another story.

  15. Art Wagner says

    Correction: the developer is Blanchard & Calhoun of Augusta, GA and the revised rendering came be seen at their website:
    While you are there, you might tell them what you think of their design for downtown’s most visible location.

  16. I know the businesses in South Knoxville would truly appreciate a great big DRAW to get people across the river. I can’t help thinking about Chattanooga and Savannah-and the riverfront/river-walk atmosphere in these cities. Or the boardwalk in Ft. Walton/Okaloosa. Sigh.

  17. Art Wagner says

    The renderings you are showing are not the current revised ones from the developer, Calhoun & Blanchard. In the revised plan, the configuration of the buildings was changed completely and the height of them shrank by about 50%. The layout and visual statement is now even more suburban-looking. Why would one take one of the most visible properties in Knoxville, and one that has one of the most useful locations, and build low-rise Motel-6-esque structures that have no visible or cultural impact. Am I disappointed?
    Check out the revised renderings on the developer’s website. This looks like a bait-and-switch of the development kind.

  18. The plan shows the student housing separated from the hotel and the apartments by Chapman Highway, so I don’t see proximity to noisy students as an issue. The highway is far noisier than students could ever be.

    And the plans seem urban to me. The parking garages are hidden away behind apartments. There is retail. The overall density is high.

    I predict that within 15 years the south bank of the river/lake will be one of the hottest and most desirable places to live in the region. Condos and apartments will grow upstream and downstream from these initial developments. Then people might begin to talk about reclaiming the north bank from Neyland Drive.

  19. Another issue is that demolitions of older buildings, particularly medical facilities are extremely dangerous to workers and to the environment because of the huge quantity of toxic materials involved. We already have had deaths from the Henley Street Bridge projects. How many more for this project?

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