I’d never been inside the Mechanics’ Bank and Trust Building before last Saturday and I’d wondered about it. Sitting at 602 S. Gay Street, it’s easily one of the most striking buildings on a street that has no shortage of attractive facades. The bottom three floors and mezzanine were built in 1907, with the top two floors added in 1923. The facade is made of locally quarried marble and great care was taken to match the top two floors seamlessly to the lower, older floors.
The appearances of any number of older buildings in downtown Knoxville are often deceptive. Some buildings that look tired on the outside have marvelous interiors and many more look better on the exterior than the interior. This building has a beautiful exterior, but the interior is a mixed bag. Revenue Recovery Corporation left the building in 2012 citing the expense of parking for their employees, so ostensibly, their former space is in decent shape, but a couple of floors underwent an unsuccessful auction in the time since then and apparently each need considerable work.
One floor, at least, however, is amazing. The fifth floor, home to Sobieski, Messer and Associates, was opened for a tour last Saturday as part of the East Tennessee History Fair. Wanda Sobieski, a partner in the firm and owner of the floor, led the tours decked out in suffragist era clothing and with one of her many era-appropriate hats.
As noted earlier, the fourth and fifth floors were constructed in 1923 and when the fifth floor was purchased, Ms. Sobieski made the decision to try to take it back, as much as possible, to its original appearance. Since that also was the suffragist era, she decided to decorate it with memorabilia from the movement.
The building is much deeper than its width. She pointed out that this was due to the fact that the buildings in Knoxville at that time were taxed based on their frontage, making the choice for elongated buildings a sensible long-term economic decision. It was the front half of the building that had been most changed and therefore presented the largest challenge to renovation and return to its previous appearance.
Chief among the changes was the elimination of a stairwell and the addition of an elevator. The area previously occupied by the stairwell had been cemented over, destroying the original flooring in the entire area. New flooring was required, but they had the original hardwood in the back portion of their story and were able to match it. The elevator doors are covered with a mural that obscures its later-era addition.
Ms. Sobieski’s office occupies the front of the floor and overlooks Gay Street. Among many other artifacts, it contains the original prototype for the suffragist statue on Market Square. It’s slightly different from the final version which added sleeves on one of the women due to the fact that she would not have exposed her arms in such a scandalous manner in that day and time. The office also includes one of the two stained glass windows on the floor which were harvested from a bar that operated across the street in the Mechanics’ Building’s early years.
The hallway running the length of the floor revealed more wonders: a required metal fire-door painted to appear wooden (which it completely did), a bathroom with an era-appropriate working toilet, a conference room with a large, amazing onyx table. It and a companion piece were cross-cut, which is unusual in onyx harvesting and exposed its grain in an unusual way. In that room, Ms. Sobieski read a poem used in the suffragist movement to persuade men to change their opinions.
Also along the way through the hall in various rooms were framed documents related to the movement and a framed letter signed by President Clinton. A room toward the back of this floor was the 1950s location of WROL which broadcast the Cas Walker Show and would have seen live performances by the Everly Brothers, among others, and a small shrine to that incarnation of the building sits in the corner, including a microphone with the station’s call letters.
The kitchen included a mural that reflected the table in the room and offered a glimpse through the painted window of what the view from a front ground-level window might have included when the building was new. The kitchen extension pictured in the window also included the guests Ms. Sobieski and her husband might like to have join them for lunch and include Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Eleanor Smeal, Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony and Lizzie Crosier French.
The entirety of the law offices offers an education in the women’s push for the right to vote. Ms. Sobieski reminded us that in 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment, giving it the required three-quarters of the states for it to become law. Further, the vote turned at the last minute thanks to a change of heart by an east Tennessee legislator who later explained that he changed his vote because his mother asked him to.