Recently Urban Woman and I were fortunate enough to be invited to join friends Karen, John, Robin and Chris for a tour, just over the Henley Bridge, of the Kern’s Bakery Building with David Dewhirst as our guide. Karen won the tour in the silent auction in June at the Community Design Center event. We all enjoyed the tour – which David graciously extended beyond two hours as he spun stories of development, redevelopment and the general craziness that goes on in a city.
Urban Woman and I lived in south Knoxville for a number of years raising Urban Daughter and the smells that would waft from the bakery as we passed by were always one of the best parts of a trip in that direction. I didn’t tour the Kern’s Bakery Building as a school child as did students of a previous generation who grew up here, but I did tour the local bakery where I lived and the smell holds the same nostalgia for me as it does for many of you. We hoped we could still smell it, but the smell is long gone.
Built in 1931 as Kern’s Bakery by the family who had purchased the company from Peter Kern, the building eventually was sold and by 2012, when the last bread was baked there, Sarah Lee had use of the facility. Bimbo Bakery used it as a distribution center until last March, but by 2013 Knox Heritage had listed the building as one of its Fragile 15. The company had signaled its intention to sell the property and rumors were afoot that the site would be developed by first demolishing the building and its iconic sign. As David Dewhirst stated, “The idea was to develop college housing, which would make the best financial sense.”
Nick Pavlis, city councilman from south Knoxville wanted to make that outcome a little more difficult and less likely by giving the property an H1, historic, overlay. That wouldn’t stop demolition, but it made it more complicated. Additionally, the property carried with it seven acres behind the building which were not for sale, but would be leased to the new owner of the property. Not every developer wanted to deal with these complications, and so the door was opened for David Dewhirst, along with partners Mark Heinz, Tim Zitzman and Dixon Greenwood, to purchase the building with an eye toward restoring and preserving it while redeveloping the site for new uses.
The sprawling 90,000 square foot building includes the original building, as well as some additions accumulated over the years. An interior loading dock anchors the south side of the building. The bread had to remain hot from the oven and into the trucks, so the trucks could not be loaded in the cold, hence the internal loading dock. Currently a concrete box is attached to this side and it will be removed as the facade is restored. Helping that cause will likely be a facade grant from the city.
Throughout the site is the evidence of “improvements” that took a toll on the historic character of the building over the years: wooden flooring covered with tile, ceilings covered over with cheap drop ceilings. In other places, however, the character of the place still shows through. The massive trusses, the machinery used to make the bread and to run a factory are all still there. While a good amount of the machinery will be scrapped, some will be saved just because “it looks cool.” Anyone familiar with other Dewhirst projects knows the kinds of industrial touches that are left behind to lend authenticity and history to the “new” building. This will be no different.
Other characteristics of the property make it particularly interesting for redevelopment. The basement, for example has entrances to the rear which are on grade and open up into a large piece of the property. Additionally, a spur of the rail line runs along the north side of the building, through a nearby tunnel and connects to the urban wilderness. Decks and large windows connect the building to the outside in all directions. Large internal skylights give even the center of the building substantial daytime visibility.
In a fascinating twist, the large oven which dominates the center of the largest portion of the building, was discovered to be a highly coveted piece of equipment and has been sold for continued use. The person hired to scrap the metal realized its value and arranged the sale.
Another oddity is a Quanset Hut which attached to the rear of the building. This is where the fabled merry-go-round currently resides after it was searched for and rescued by the Dewhirst group. It’s not functional and, like so many other purchases and moves, was collected because “it’s really cool.” Beyond that, no one is sure what they’ll do with it.
As for the major question about the future use of the building, ideas are being developed and tenants pursued. Dewhirst would like to see a vibrant scene which would draw people from all over the area. He kept referencing certain sections of Asheville which are pretty raw and funky, but have a great vibe. He talked of the possibility of a brewery, restaurants and an interior climbing facility. He wants it to be tied to the urban wilderness in the sense of adding to Knoxville’s growing reputation for active sports. He’s considering uses from the obvious to the extreme for the neighboring property.
In short, he wants it to be a scene all its own, but to fit into the larger personality Knoxville is developing. He’s excited about the connection to the urban wilderness, but he also points out that the building sits within easy walking distance of two huge planned developments, the student housing planned for the west side of Chapman Highway and the apartments planned for the Baptist Hospital site.
The facade should be completed this fall, which should help reveal the building’s potential. The hope is to have it cleaned out sometime in the spring of 2016 and begin setting the plans into action. It could be ready for use within a year-and-a-half. It’s another extension of the development of downtown and paired with the apartments mentioned above and with businesses I’ve recently profiled, along with Suttree Landing Park, this portion of south Knoxville appears to be taking off in a very exciting direction.