I often hear from visitors to our city that Knoxville has done a good job keeping its old building stock. It’s interesting to consider since, for those of us keeping an eye on such matters, it seems as if we are losing it faster than ever in recent years and every block has a gaping hole. Just yesterday we talked about the Pryor Brown Garage, for example.
Sometime last winter I got a message from Whitney Manahan. Whitney (who didn’t directly say, “cars eat buildings,” I said that, but she did in so many words) has an interior design degree and is working toward her graduate degree in architecture while working part time for Dewhirst Properties on a design team with Mark Heinz and Aaron Pennington. She said she was onto something related to our downtown buildings for one of her classes at UT and she thought I’d be interested. I was very interested but, unfortunately, I was unable to follow-up.
I recently heard her, and project partner Jared Wilkins, present at Pecha Kucha, during which they talked about their work together. The project focused on what has been lost in downtown Knoxville, mapping the shift in urban density over the previous decades. To be clear from the outset: Greater urban density results in more sustainable growth and encourages economic development. The response to their presentation was immediate and positive.
I met with Whitney last week to discuss the project and its impact. In short, the project involved posting small laminated signs at key intersections around the city. The signs included photographs of the view from that intersection from the first half of the twentieth century. They provided an often jarring contrast to the current view from that spot. Generally, where once there were buildings, some magnificent, there are now parking lots or gaping holes in the street-scape. After the project ended, she and Jared started Lost Knox on Tumblr, essentially using the content as a starting point for explorations of our loss of urban density in Knoxville.
The shocking heart of the work can be seen in the following three diagrams, displaying downtown Knoxville’s density in 1935 and now. The second diagram includes parking garages and the third includes parking lots.While we can – and should – talk about individual buildings lost, it’s truly heartbreaking to see the scope of the loss. The downtown area has gone from nearly solidly developed to a very small percentage of area currently utilized for anything other than cars. It makes the point better than anything I or anyone else could say. This is why we are concerned when additional buildings are demolished.
Some people have mentioned making the signs a permanent fixture on downtown streets. Clearly, the signs would show our historical structures, but they also make it clear what has been lost. On the one hand, this would lead to a more educated populace. People might actually begin to understand what we lose in demolitions. On the other hand, it doesn’t make us look so good, does it?
With the goal of making people realize what we’ve lost and what we continue to lose, comes the need for education as to the assistance available to renovate, rather than demolish, the buildings. Many tax incentives, grants and other supports are in place, particularly for historic buildings, if people will use them.
She points out something I’d not considered before: Many of the lost buildings in downtown Knoxville were hotels. Once they aged a bit, they tended to change to tenements, which came to be seen as blight on the city. This may explain whey so many of them were torn down, rather than re-purposed: The demolition was likely viewed as an improvement to the city.
Jared and Whitney hope that as people realize what is lost they will not only be interested in preservation of what remains, but in filling in the gaps we’ve created. It’s a phase of redevelopment we’ve only recently begun to dabble with, particularly in the form of Marble Alley, which is being built on a long-time parking lot behind Mast General Store, but was once the site of a beautiful police station, I believe. It’s the first time in many years an open spot is slated to become a building, not the other way around.
Whitney, meanwhile, has a lot going on. She and Jared present their project to the Historic Zoning Commission, an arm of the Metropolitan Planning Commission, on Thursday and later to Knox Heritage. She’s casting her eyes about the city and thinking big thoughts. Like how about something dramatic at Holston Gases once the silos are empty? Perhaps housing, or perhaps, this. She’s also in the early planning stages of an Emory Place block party, as she feels this neighborhood has tremendous potential (email her at emoryplaceblockparty@
As we finished our conversation, she mentioned that Knoxville could use a little height with its redevelopment. I wouldn’t bet against her being the one who designs it. She’s going to be someone to keep an eye on in the future and Knoxville is fortunate to have her working in our city.
I should also mention another excellent on-line resource: My friend John Weaver has a similarly-named blog called “Knoxville Lost and Found,” in which he covers similar terrain, often in a very detailed manner. Some of the same buildings pictured on this post (like the Vendome) have been explored in depth on his site. It’s worth your time to read it.