I’ve wondered periodically over the last several years just what was behind the door in the lobby of the Holston Building. I knew it had once bee the lobby for the various banks once occupying the building. The Holston Bank, founded in 1890, built the first twelve stories of the building in 1912, moving into the tallest building in the city during the summer of 1913. In 1928 the bank merged with the Union National Bank and added two floors to the top.
The bank failed, along with many others in 1930 and the building was taken by Knoxville-based Hamilton National Bank, which occupied the building until it was purchased in 1975 by Jake Butcher’s United American Bank which moved its headquarters down Gay Street into the Plaza Tower while maintaining a branch in the Holston until his banking empire collapsed in 1983.
The building was purchased in 2005 by a group of investors including David Dewhirst who transformed the upper floors into condominiums. The building boasts the first condominium in the city to sell for over a million dollars. Two are currently on the market for well over that figure.
But what of that bank lobby? It has remained empty and positioned just across the street from the Farragut Hotel with the French Market and a string of businesses from there down a couple of blocks of Gay Street, I’ve often wondered if it might not make a good spot for retail of some sort. Not having seen the space, I couldn’t be sure. Last week I got an offer from Brady Greene who has the property listed for Conversion Properties at $1.2 million.
The space actually includes two levels. The first floor which was the former bank lobby, measures just over 4,000 square feet and includes the former bank lobby and a narrow room that opens onto Gay Street. There are additional entrances off Clinch, over which the Holston National Bank name is still inscribed. A couple of pieces of the original copper cornice sits in this space awaiting repair and return to the top of the building.
Clear throughout the space are marble floors similar to the marble covering the lower exterior of the building. What must have been a receptionist’s desk sits surrounded in elegant rails and marble. Sunlight washes over the huge expanse through large windows lining the Clinch Avenue side of the building. The opposite side borders Krutch Park and has no windows or doors, but does feature indentations that call to mind fire places, though that’s not logical.
Only broken by support columns, the space seems perfect for a big venture, whether a bank a large restaurant or perhaps a department store. But over 3,000 square feet await below and it’s perhaps the more interesting, if less functional, portion of the property.
A wide marble-lined stairwell spirals just to one side of the receptionist’s station to the basement. A wide corridor includes high indentations along one wall, the function of which is lost on me. The other side of the corridor has doors which are now non-functional, but which would seem to have been entryways to booths, perhaps for viewing items retrieved from a safe deposit box.
The most fascinating feature of the floor is the large safe. I never considered a safe having a front and back door, but this one does. I also never considered that safe doors could be beautiful, but these are. Over a foot thick, their brass inner workings are visible and somehow elegant as gears go.
A trip through the safe (and who got to take that trip in the day?) leads to a fairly large room in the back. An exit from that room leads to a corridor partially running under Clinch Avenue. It’s an odd hallway which leads to a tiled area. The tiled area could once have been showers, but why showers in the basement of a bank? The corridor appears to end at the front of the building, but was it once a corridor under the street? I’m not sure but what the possibility of a subterranean safe-crossing made my mind become wildly speculative.
Clearly, the entire floor intrigued me and would take some thought to be fully utilized by a new venture. Obviously a bank could use it for its original function. A restaurant could potentially use it as a kitchen and food storage and staging area. Could we bring the downtown heritage of Watson’s basement sales back for another round below a new department store? Could it be a pharmacy/grocery store?
The potential uses and redesigns of the two spaces offer many possibilities. Could a doorway be opened onto Krutch Park with outside tables for dining? It goes on. Any buyer would also gain signage rights to the elevator penthouse atop the building which, visible from as far away as the interstate, would offer significant exposure for any venture contained therein.
The Holston is one of any number of buildings which have in recent years returned from near-dead to vibrant and contributory. Many other buildings, as is the case with the Holston, still have more to give. It won’t surprise any of my long-term readers to hear that I would love for this space to become a retail space. It would add retail to a side of Gay Street which has very little retail activity at this point and, with the pending closure of Jay’s Megamart, will soon have less. This could be a nice step to reversing that reality.
In any case, it’s a great space fronting Gay Street at a time the stock of available buildings able to boast that is diminishing rapidly. And it is worth repeating that we have a building downtown with three spaces inside listed for over a million dollars each. We’ve come a long way from a time entire buildings were practically being given away. Interested in other downtown properties? You might want to click the “downtown properties” link above and see what’s available.