Do Cars Eat Buildings? Ask Whitney Manahan!

Lost Knox Street Project, Knoxville, Winter 2014

Lost Knox Street Project, Knoxville, Winter 2014

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.

Acuff Building, Knoxville, 1920s

Acuff Building, Knoxville, 1920s

Acuff Building Site, Knoxville, 2013

Acuff Building Site, Knoxville, 2013

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.

Whitney Manahan, Lost Knox Street Project, Knoxville, September 2014

Whitney Manahan, Lost Knox Street Project, Knoxville, September 2014

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.

Cumberland Hotel, Knoxville, 1933

Cumberland Hotel, Knoxville, 1933

Cumberland Hotel Site, Knoxville, 2013

Cumberland Hotel Site, Knoxville, 2013

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.

Hotel Arnold, Knoxville, 1920s

Hotel Arnold, Knoxville, 1920s

Hotel Arnold Site, Knoxville, 2013

Hotel Arnold Site, Knoxville, 2013

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.

Density Diagram, Knoxville, 1935

Density Diagram, Knoxville, 1935

Density Diagram with Parking Garages, Knoxville, 2013

Density Diagram with Parking Garages, Knoxville, 2013

Density Diagram with Parking Structures and Lots, Knoxville, 2014

Density Diagram with Parking Structures and Lots, Knoxville, 2014

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?

Park Hotel, Knoxville, Early 1900s

Park Hotel, Knoxville, Early 1900s

Park Hotel Site, Knoxville, 2013

Park Hotel Site, Knoxville, 2013

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.

Ross Flats, Knoxville, 1920s

Ross Flats, Knoxville, 1920s

Ross Flats Site, Knoxville, 2013

Ross Flats Site, Knoxville, 2013

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.

Sprankle Building, Knoxville, Early 1900s

Sprankle Building, Knoxville, Early 1900s

Sprankle Building Site, Knoxville, 2013

Sprankle Building Site, Knoxville, 2013

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.

Union Bus Terminal, Knoxville, Early 1900s

Union Bus Terminal, Knoxville, Early 1900s

Union Bus Terminal Site, Knoxville, 2013

Union Bus Terminal Site, Knoxville, 2013

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@gmail.com if you want to help).

Vendome Apt. House, Knoxville, 1889

Vendome Apt. House, Knoxville, 1889

Vendome Apt. House Site, Knoxville, 2014

Vendome Apt. House Site, Knoxville, 2014

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.

Whitney Manahan, Lost Knox Street Project, Knoxville, September 2014

Whitney Manahan, Lost Knox Street Project, Knoxville, September 2014

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.

 

Comments

  1. knox@hotmail.com says

    Please stop with the generic DATED looking buildings that have been going up in Knoxville for years. All the character Knoxville once had is being demolished and paved with concrete. The Park next to Market square was Beautiful, a mini Savannah until it was cemented over and replaced with bad 1980s ideas of what is “Modern”. Now Gay St. looks the same, Worlds Fair Park looks the same. What catalog is this stuff all being bought out of? Look out your window now and all you see is into parking garages. How many do you need? The redundant architecture of brick and concrete is turning Knoxville into an anti-individualistic Utopian dream of one man who needs to expand his appreciation and taste of Architecture because as it stands Knoxville is becoming one note. Boring!

  2. For whatever it’s worth, of the buildings on this particular list, at least the Cumberland Hotel was not demolished on purpose. Instead, it met its end through a catastrophic fire some time in the early 1960s. It’s still worth noting, anyway, since that was well into the time when other buildings were being replaced with surface parking. That is, the decision was apparently made at that time that rather than rebuild on the site with another building (as was done a few decades earlier when the Imperial Hotel burned and was replaced by the Farragut [Hotel] Building), the best use for the site was surface parking.

  3. Great article, Allen. Would love to get Whitney Manahan’s contact information to see if she could speak to City People. The before/after pictures are truly startling and disturbing. And I think Whitney’s signs need to be a permanent fixture to continue to awaken and educate residents and visitors of our history, no matter how shocking. Knowledge is power for the future. And in regard to this comment: “if you need do shopping you go to West Town or Turkey Creek. It would we amazing if Knoxville could return to that. And it could if we wanted it to.” Here’s one resounding YES, I want it to!

    • I AGREE! KNOX CANT COMPLAIN ABOUT PPL NOT VISITING WHEN THE GIVE THEM NOTHING TO LOOK AT BEING HERE. HOW DO WE STOP THIS?? CITIES WERE BUILT FOR FEET, NOT CARS!

  4. I was about to say, “Hey, that looks a little like my work.” I guess the more info we get out, the better.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      You would be correct. I’ve sent a bunch of people your way today, my friend. I think that would inspire me to get back to some heavy lifting, if I were you. 🙂

  5. By 1935, the date of Manahan’s density map, the decline of new construction downtown had already started. The 1890-1920 boom in building was not being matched with new construction. The postwar sprawl (which almost destroyed Knoxville as an urban entity) really sped this up. Old buildings were demolished with little replacement. New buildings downtown since 1965 can almost be counted with the fingers on one hand; the empty lots cannot. The issue is WHY and what can we do in 2014 to encourage high quality development investment and stop repeating the past.

    • We have to give them a reason to come here. Knoxville is a gold mine of construction, and investment opportunity!! I’m from Baltimore and I have a hunger to live and be near something familiar. Yes, Knoxville is on a smaller scale but its perfect for someone like me who wants to downsize the drama of a huge city, but not loose the value and sense of adventure that living in a city provides. People won’t tour or visit here if all there is to do is look at cars and parking lots. Other cities manage to handle bridging the gap between history and modernization. Why can’t Knoxville?! It can! But it has to stop erasing itself from the map first. If I had the means, these old buildings would be going back up!

  6. Big thanks to Manahan and Wilkins (and to UrbanGuy) for accumulating the graphic evidence of what we had, what we lost, and what a fabulous urban environment it could be once again with aesthetic infill architecture breathing life again into those empty enervating empty spaces.

    It is important that everyone who lives in or cares about Knoxville’s future, see the truth of what was once there–an energetic, full-of-life urban core.

    • I agree, i am to young to remember but my grandma talked a lot and told many stories about downtown. She use to work and the standard knitting mills, she spoke about tiding the street cars and downtown was the place to shop back in the day that’s just where you went. It’s so hard to imagine that today although there is some shopping now really if you need do shopping you go to West Town or Turkey Creek. It would we amazing if Knoxville could return to that. And it could if we wanted it to.

  7. Very shocking to see how much land in the downtown district is surface parking and not to mention the downtown district is quite small. I just can’t imagine that so many people over the years would prefer a flat surface rather than a structure. I’m not a die hard preservationist but you have to admit some of these structures were quite magnificent and a gazillion times better than a surface parking lot. Wow very eye opening. I think I need to give the preservationist a little slack. If something is going to be torn down at least replace it with something else magnificent. Build it and they will come. I really like what Whitney said that Knoxville could use a little height in its redevelopment. Thank you and may you have all the power invested in you to make that happen.

  8. I remember so many of these buildings. Some were still around when I was young. We did all our shopping downtown. It’s so sad and disheartening for a native Knoxvillian to watch the loss. It is nearly impossible to stop the destruction due to factors out of our control.

    Thanks for your continued investigative articles about our buildings downtown. It’s important to remember that people don’t book to see surface lots and garages. Yes. They are a necessary evil, but if our public transportation was better, I think most of us would use it to go downtown more often.

  9. Alan, you continue to educate and amaze me with your energy to dig this information out along with your super pics. thanks tom

  10. Very interesting view into Knoxville’s urban past. The diagrams really showed the destruction of our urban footprint due to suburbanization. Now the weight of political power is surely in the suburbs where most people live. How can those of us who are interested in recovering a vibrant urban core help our city recover? I’d love to get involved somehow.

  11. In Colorado, history is in every blink and breath.
    Knoxville is a great city, but it’s love of flat surfaces covered in asphalt and cement is disturbing.
    More reliable cheap public transportation, please!

  12. Amy Hathaway says

    I really enjoyed this post and wish I’d seen the signs posted around town (they are no longer up, correct?). I’m curious if there is a nap that shows where green space has been added downtown for 1935 vs 2014.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      You are correct – the signs are no longer up. As for green space, I don’t know of any comparative map – though I’m sure some of the readers of this blog have the capacity to generate one. If I had to guess, I’d say there was virtually none in 1935 since the space was so full of buildings.

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