I’ve sat on about half of these photographs for nearly six months, sort of waiting for the story of the First Christian Church to emerge. The other half of the photos were taken last month when I got a second look inside with a smaller group. Plans haven’t been cemented for the space, though anticipation runs high. It’s beautiful and fascinating to consider what might happen.
In February news broke that David Dewhirst and Mark Heinz had purchased the church. Last April, Jack Neely wrote a piece about the church, among other things, and pointed out that churches often disappear or change. The first one hundred years of Knoxville’s downtown church history, he pointed out, left no physical remains.
Notable for several reasons, a casual glance reveals the unusual architectural features for a building in Knoxville. The Spanish tile roof and the Ionic columns along the front make it stand out. Rich, carved woodwork, stained glass windows and a fully functional and amazingly massive pipe organ may be found inside. The windows are interesting in that many of the symbols seem to bear little relation to Christianity, though others do. Arches, slate courtyards and great views of the surrounding area are found throughout.
The church is 100 years old, the congregation holding their last service on the approximate 100th anniversary of its opening. The building, designed by Charles Barber, was built in an area of Knoxville that was growing rapidly as the street car made travel possible out Gay to Emory Place. The subsequent decades were less kind to the area as the Interstate sliced that portion of town, the automobile gave the population the option to move further out and the nearby area came to be used for homeless services.
In selling the building, church elders specifically requested that the building not be used as a church after the sale. It raises a question: What do you do with a church building that no longer functions as a church? There are a number of answers to that not-so-uncommon question. Last January a Wall Street Journal article detailed the hundreds of churches and cathedrals that have closed in Europe. Some sit empty while others have become skate parks, circus training schools, bars, homes and many different types of businesses. The article suggests this will become increasingly common in the US over the next decades, pointing out that from 2000 to 2010, 5,000 new churches were built while actual attendance declined by 3%.
Clearly, it’s not a totally new issue in the US. Consider Alice’s Restaurant, “it all started two Thanksgivings ago, was on – two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the restaurant, but Alice doesn’t live in the restaurant, she lives in the
church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog.” At least that much of the story was true, so the church, currently owned by Arlo Guthrie was a home in the 1960s.
The most famous re-purposed church in the US, however, may hold a clue as to the future use of First Christian Church. The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, known to many as the Mother Church of Country music, started its life in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. While it housed shows of various sorts from the beginning, it became best known, starting in 1943, as the home to the Grand Ole Opry, which used the building for its weekly broadcasts until 1974. I’m fortunate enough to remember several trips to the Opry in the late 1960s seeing country music giants, included some from east Tennessee such as Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff and Archie Campbell.
Does the future of First Christian Church hold something similar? It’s a very real possibility, according to David Dewhirst who envisions some sort of live music venue for the property. It’s large, however, and ample office space could be provided to promoters or other businesses associated with the venue. A restaurant/bar on site is easily imaginable as a full, operational commercial kitchen and potential dining spaces – both indoor and out – could easily be converted to the new use. Perhaps it could be used to build upon Knoxville’s reputation as a center for Americana music.
The area which was up-and-coming when the church was built and the down-and-declining for several decades is now among the hottest areas near downtown. It sits literally on the edge of Emory Place and two blocks from the Knoxville High School redevelopment. The new condos and planned apartments along with Public House and Tennessee Valley Bikes are about two blocks away. Broadway – just a block away is starting to show signs of redevelopment. Soon, the former church will be at the center of a new explosion of creative re-uses and a new hotspot in the city.
You have a chance to explore the area this Saturday at the Emory Place Block Party. You’ll find food trucks, beer, open house at a number of the businesses, Old Grey Cemetery – Knoxville’s most beautiful – is just across the street. Bands will play, a garage sale will be hosted on Tyson just a block away and a historical exhibit will be displayed to help you learn more about the area. And just around the corner you can check out First Christian Church.
If you want to go ahead and consider the potential ramifications of a church that is no longer a church, you might want to kick back for the next nineteen minutes and listen to Arlo Guthrie tell you all about it. It can get complicated.