Slowly, but very steadily, each of the remaining historic buildings on Gay Street are being renovated and updated. Work currently is underway in the old KUB Building, the Merchants Bank and Trust Building, the former J.C. Penney Building. Half the bottom floors are complete in the Century Building, with spaces awaiting purchase or lease (in the case of the ground floor) for the remainder of the build-out. In December, plans were presented to the Downtown Design Review Board for the restoration of the exterior of the Kress Building, 417 -421 S. Gay Street, as well as the re-purposing of the interior. The design architects, C3 Studio, LLC returned this month with some adjustments and the discussion continues.
The conversation is down to minute details that went far beyond my capacity to follow, but suffice to say it is getting very close to approval and will most certainly move forward very soon. I think most people would be amazed at the level of detail the members of the Downtown Design Review Board attend to. It’s those details that assure historic accuracy or enhance our aesthetic appearance as we pass by the building a year or more after those conversations.
So, clearly, with downtown development moving at its recent pace, the days were limited for J’s Mega Mart, which had inhabited the ground floor of the building since the 1970s, though it closed for a few months a couple of years ago. The rest of the building has been empty. So, what are the plans for the Kress Building? It is set to be multi-use. I’ve mentioned that Bullman’s Gym is coming to the basement space, soon. I’ll have an interview with Terri Bullman and much more detail on that project next week. Add a subterranean gym and bowling alley on opposite sides of the street and that’s more underground activity Knoxville has seen since prohibition.
The ground floor will feature the most altered part of the facade. The architect promises the new entries will include a “better street-level connection,” much more so than the current configuration of display windows. Plans for fronting the street include an entrance into a lobby which will include stairs and an elevator downstairs to the gym and upstairs to planned offices. Directly behind the lobby is space for a small retail business.
There will also be a direct entrance from the street into a large restaurant which will take the majority of the ground-level floor. The kitchen will be approximately where you might have found the aging canned goods in the grocery section of the Mega Mart. The alteration to the front will also allow for limited sidewalk seating. A third entrance will lead into a potential deli which will have a kitchen that backs up to – and perhaps connects to – the kitchen for the larger restaurant.
I’m going to play designer/planner for a moment and question the plans just a bit. It seems to me that any use in the basement is a good use, so I’m pleased with that floor, but I wonder about the remainder. If I’m a retailer, I’d strongly prefer my space to engage the street directly, so why not have the stairs and elevator down a corridor in the back and move that retail to the front? Having it in the back almost makes certain it becomes office space. And why dedicate the other small retail space to a deli? We already have several in the immediate area. My preference would be for all three spaces, including the large one, to be retail.
I’d also like to see homes on the two floors above the street. I’d prefer condos because I think we need a shift to people investing their money in property downtown, but I’d rather have more apartments over office space. Perhaps the owners have market analyses that suggest office space will be more successful, but demand seems to me to be much higher for housing. Office space sits empty and apartments and condos lease or sell very rapidly. Perhaps they have all the spaces spoken for and I’m off-base on this one.
In total, each floor is roughly 7,900 square feet, so that will be the space allotted to the gym, to the restaurants/retail on the ground floor and the office space, comprised of two floors, will be roughly twice that. The developers do say they will keep, “much of the original ceilings, walls, and structure exposed to show the historic value of the building.” I’m really hoping they do that well. In most of the renovations I’ve watched, surprises happen and often expenses are incurred in saving historical or interesting features of the building.
Built in 1925 by contractor V.L. Nicholson, to me the building is a very good example of the ethic of that era and I think it is quite generally different from our own. This building was built to hold a five-and-dime store. Not a Saks Fifth Avenue, Parisian or Macy’s. Nothing fancy. But the building is beautiful. The company clearly cared enough to make the building more than simply functional. I’m appreciative every day as I walk our streets to the people who lived and built here a hundred years ago.
We wouldn’t build something that detailed and ornate today for our finest department stores. Our current architecture emphasizes economy over quality. It’s too often more about the budget than the legacy. I’d like to hope we could look to the example of this building and others like it as a challenge to leave something substantial, beautiful and functional for those who come behind us. We’re about to hit a large phase of in-fill construction in Knoxville. Will we fill the gaps – which we generated by tearing down beautiful buildings – with buildings which will engender gratitude from future generations?
ADDED CONTENT: I had to wait until he made the announcement, which he has now made via twitter:
Finally, I want to give a quick shout out to Josh Flory. He’s been the best source of business and development news in our area for years and he’s been extremely kind to this blogger who appeared out of nowhere to step into some of his terrain. His links to my articles early in the history of this site were critical to my finding an audience and I’ll always appreciate it and wish him the very best.