While kicking around on the street in the area between Old Grey Cemetery and Central for the story on Bar Marley’s, I noticed the building at 800 Tyson, bedecked with a banner proclaiming, “Shoreline University Fellowship.” Curious, I approached the building and noticed an architectural rendering on the door of a cafe and studio space. A religious cafe? No one was around, but I returned later and had the good fortune of bumping into the owner, Patti Smith (not that Patti Smith, the other one). I soon learned that, while the building is interesting, the woman who owns it is fascinating.
Ms. Smith graciously ushered me the 1946 era building and explained that a church is leasing the space until December which accounts for the banner. The rendering I noticed on the door shows some renovations that will be completed eventually, thanks in part to a facade grant from the city of Knoxville, though design changes have been made since. The building will be the site of an art show this Friday by UT senior art student, Marta Lee (7:00 to 10:00 PM), and a puppet show on Halloween.
Originally a radiator shop, Ms. Smith found it in 2003 when it was occupied by Widbey Printing Company. She fell in love with the building, saying “the first time I walked in it felt like home.” She asked the price, offered the quarter in her pocket as “earnest money until I could do better,” and he took it. The building includes an 1800 square foot space and a 700 square foot smaller space with a basement below it of the same size.
She moved her business, P. Smith Signs and Displays, to the new building. Started in 1984 and first located in the Holston Strip Mall on Asheville Highway, she moved the business to East Jackson Avenue in 1987 joining Annie’s and The Mercantile as the three new businesses in the early development of that section of town Later she moved to North Central and then 800 Tyson. In 2008 her business merged with High Resolutions and she leased the space first to Three Flights Up Gallery, then the Children’s Theater of Knoxville who stayed until just over a year ago.
It’s the life behind the building, as always, that holds the real story. Born and raised in the Carter community in East Knox County, the family lived just off Asheville Highway behind Helma’s, her mother’s restaurant. After graduating from Carter High School, she subsequently earned an undergraduate education degree and later the first MS awarded by UT in Elementary Physical Education. During summers of her undergraduate years she worked as a swimming instructor at Point O’Pines Summer Camp in upstate New York, waitress in Newport Beach in Southern California, and was an exchange student in Paris, France.
She first taught at Gulf Park College in Gulf Port, Mississippi, where she met her husband, a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force in Gulfport, then the family moved to Otis Air force Base on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, while her husband served thirteen months in Taiwan during the Vietnam War. After having a son there, they returned to Biloxi where she, once more taught at Gulf Park College.
After his tour, the couple returned to Knoxville for him to go to graduate school at UT. Not finished traveling, they later went to Russia on a Cultural Tour, then returned and bought a farm in Strawberry Plains in Jefferson County. A second son was born during their twenty four years on the farm. After divorcing in 1976, she and the boys remained on the farm until 1993 when she bought a Condo in the 100 Block of Gay Street. She says, “The busiest year of my life was the year that one son was at Webb School and the other at Jefferson County High School. I had a full time teaching job, owned a monthly newspaper called the County Chronicle and 25 head of white face cattle. Sure kept me hoppin’.”
After all those incredible years of rich living, she became one of the first downtown citizens in Knoxville’s new era, and has now lived on the 100 block of Gay Street for the past twenty-one years, and she adds, “I love it. I have watched all the changes and it makes my heart swell when I see all the good things that have happened downtown in the last 20 years. We are so fortunate to have such a talented group of folk , whether government or individuals who have made Knoxville such a wonderful and fun place to live.”
She points out that she hosts one of the most unique urban observances in the city, the annual Blessing of the Pansies. “Steve Dupree stands in my middle window and blesses the Pansies and Jack O’Hanlon usually brings his guitar . . . and yes we do have something to eat and drink . “The Blessing is always a last minute decision: Plant the pansies, wait for good weather and just put the word out about the Blessing. This year will be our 15th blessing.” She also notes that this year she’s awaiting the return of her grandson, Sergeant Seth Smith, from Germany where he has been on active duty for three years.
I asked her if, in her mid-seventies, there would be anything that would surprise people about her. She said, “I have an electric bike and the surprise is that I have not yet crashed really bad . . yet. And I am a master’s level USATF Track and Field Official. I have completed 38 years and have worked meets from New York to California and lots of places in between which includes the Para Olympic Games in Atlanta.”
So, it’s a cool building available for lease, but it’s really about the people and Patti Smith is one of the coolest you’ll meet in the city. If you see her, say “hello.” And I hope to see her again at the Blessing of the Pansies.