An Anniversary for two Missing Buildings and an Empty Lot

710 and 712 Walnut Street, Knoxville, June 2013

710 and 712 Walnut Street, Knoxville, June 2013

Yesterday an anniversary of sorts passed without so much as a thought. It’s something that some people would rather be forgotten. It’s something that only the most spiteful among us might be interested in celebrating. I think it is worth remembering and taking note.

For those of you who didn’t read this blog two years ago, I’ll review. Unfortunately a number of links in the articles I’ll reference have been lost because the Knoxville News Sentinel has chosen to remove them from the Internet. That would be all links to articles in Metro Pulse and also to Josh Flory’s Property Scope blog.

St. John's Episcopal Cathedral, Knoxville, June 2012

St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Knoxville, June 2012

The first time I wrote about St. John’s Episcopal was in November of 2011 when they formally requested a demolition permit for their properties at 710 and 712 Walnut Street. At the time, they insisted the buildings were too deteriorated for them to afford to repair. Initially they said they wanted more parking. When it was pointed out that they would gain five spaces, they reversed course, presenting a rendering of a fenced courtyard in that space, saying it would be an amenity for downtown.

2012 was quiet on the demolition front and I noted in March of that year that the church continued to ask for postponements of their hearing before the Downtown Design Review Board. I worried it would end suddenly after the issue had faded from public attention. It did and by mid 2013 the permission for demolition was granted.

710 and 712 Walnut Street, Knoxville, November 2011

710 and 712 Walnut Street, Knoxville, November 2011

710 and 712 Walnut Street, Knoxville, June 2013

710 and 712 Walnut Street, Knoxville, June 2013

Protest, St. John's Episcopal Cathedral, Knoxville, June 2013

Protest, St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Knoxville, June 2013

A protest was held on a Sunday morning in June outside the church. A second protest was held later in the month of June. A petition, started by Andrea Monk, asking the church to stop the demolition gathered nearly 700 signatures and she delivered it personally to the church. David Dewhirst offered to renovate the buildings and then lease them from the church. His offer was ignored.

In August, after the church secured the permit for demolition, I wrote an open letter to the church and published it on this blog. The church had shifted its reason for demolition from the cost of maintenance to the need for parking, to a desired courtyard and ended with the urgent need for a drop-off point for their older parishioners. The truth had become obscured through all the changes in tactic. The truth was widely held to be that the buildings were being destroyed out of spite.

Demolition of 710 and 712 Walnut, Knoxville, September 2013

Demolition of 710 and 712 Walnut, Knoxville, September 2013

Demolition of 710 and 712 Walnut, Knoxville, September 2013

Demolition of 710 and 712 Walnut, Knoxville, September 2013

And then it happened. On a Saturday in September, the two buildings were destroyed. It was over. The church exercised its legal right to ignore the wishes of the community and did so. Despite the fact that the community wanted the buildings saved, we would have parking or a courtyard or a very much needed drop off point for senior citizens.

So, it’s been two years, what do we have? Nothing, of course. Some grass and a couple of mounds of dirt. No courtyard, no drop-off, not even five parking spaces. Just an empty spot where two nearly hundred-year-old buildings used to stand. Just a chain of lies to justify a demolition that did not need to happen.

I’ve been accused of being too hard-line about saving old buildings and maybe that’s true. I’ve been instructed that tearing down the old is the only way to make way for the new. Unfortunately, the new often doesn’t materialize for years or even decades and when it does, it is rarely as thoughtfully constructed as what was lost.

710 and 712 Walnut, Knoxville, September 2015

710 and 712 Walnut, Knoxville, September 2015

710 and 712 Walnut, Knoxville, September 2015

710 and 712 Walnut, Knoxville, September 2015

We now have a few parking lots turning into buildings for the first time in a generation, rather than the other way around. It seems to be a trend. I hope we’ve learned something from this debacle and that we won’t repeat this scenario in the future with the Pryor Brown Garage, for example, or the Cal Johnson Building which is being demolished by neglect as you read this. If we are to avoid this mistake again, it may only be if we remember the errors of our past – including this error which happened only two years ago yesterday.


  1. Kenneth Moffett says:

    Those buildings, perhaps seeming poky and unappealing to some, could have been notably improved with modest and discerning means. They could have been useful to the church or to other entities. They comprised what is a valuable element of urbanism: background urban fabric, helping to avert the phenomenon of isolated boxes with space all around them, which is now the fate of the Walnut Building. One would feel a bit better about all this if a plan is being prepared to make good use of the now vacant lot, which the public could take heart from. I hope so, as design architect for the great hall addition to that church, many years ago.

  2. Who owns the Cal Johnson building? WBIR ran the Heartland episode on Johnson recently. He seems like one of the most important African-American figures in Knoxville history. Is the owner a contractor to any government entities like the City or UT? With all the focus on diversity and respecting minority heritage, I would think the mishandling of that building should be a factor for any public entity doing business with the owner.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      This is from the Knox Heritage “Most Endangered” list from a couple of years ago: “12. Cal Johnson Building – 301 State Street

      Cal Johnson, Knoxville’s first African American philanthropist, built this State Street building c. 1898 in the Vernacular Commercial style; it is a rare example of a large commercial structure that was built by a former slave; the building originally housed a clothing factory. Cal Johnson was well-respected in Knoxville; he served as a city alderman during his extensive career, which included the operation of several area saloons and one of Knoxville’s most popular and durable horse racing tracks. The building and its history could be a featured site in efforts to encourage heritage tourism related to Knox County’s African American residents and their ancestors.

      The building is threatened by long term, ongoing deterioration and a lack of maintenance. The owner has recently boarded up the windows and repaired the roof, but it is still in a precarious state of disrepair. The building is owned by the Jack Dance family.

      Knox Heritage seeks to work with the property owner to make necessary repairs and capitalize on the current level of downtown redevelopment in order to spur the reuse of this important structure before it is too late. If the property owner continues to allow the building to decay, the City of Knoxville must intervene through stringent codes enforcement and application of its Demolition by Neglect authority in order to save this extremely important piece of Knoxville’s African American history.”

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      Here’s an article about the death of Jack Dance. His family owns the business, now. They’ve made their fortune off UT sports apparel and own the “Bacon and Co.” building that faces Summit Hill. Both buildings are horrific, large eyesores.

      • Again, off on a tangent–but the Dance owned buildings (actually 3 buildings, plus the Cal Johnson) are now a shadow of what was once their commercial building glory as dry goods wholesaler buildings. A horrific shame.
        There are photos of them from the 30s in the McClung Collection. The three faced Commerce Avenue, but that section was moved for the construction of Summit Hill Drive.
        First, the two shorter ones (from the NW):
        Second, the taller one (from the corner of Commerce and State):
        (Cal Johnson is in the background)

        • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

          Wow. Very sad – and an important tangent.

          • Larry Lewis says:

            I know that, last November, some degree of exterior cosmetic improvement work was being performed on the facade of at least one of the Bacon & Co. buildings…..the one on the west end of the three, on the corner with what I think was once called Fire Alley(?). Not living in your area, I don’t know how that effort came out. Current Google views are from a couple months prior. Since Jack Dance had already passed by then, one would hope that somebody in the family cares, at least a bit.

          • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

            I wish I could support your optimism, but the truth is there used to be glass panels (very horrific) on that surface. They were removed in January of 2013, leaving the patches of black glue that used to hold them in place. It’s been that way for nearly three years.

        • Really shows how much of Knoxville has just been destroyed. I would imagine that visitors from out of town see downtown as a splotchy mess, with absolutely no cohesiveness.
          Looking at the photos linked here, as well as previous ones you’ve shared, and it’s amazing to see what a vibrant area it once was, only to be shattered into all but a few remaining pieces. Now we’ve got the towers, which are poorly constructed in the opinion of many, and nobody even wants them anymore really, they’ve become little more than a burden in a spot that used to be home to a grand hotel.

          • As for the Bacon & Co. buildings, they seem to stop in their tracks with plans to “stucco” it. That was a good move IMO, but it looks terrible!

          • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

            It’s interesting that you mention visitors. I often get from visitors that they are amazed we’ve preserved so many great buildings. I see the parking lots that used to be buildings, but they don’t seem to see that so much. That said, they do sometimes wonder where “the rest” of it is, as in shops, etc.

  3. Can you elaborate on the Cal Johnson demolition? I had no idea this was about to occur. Was hoping that someone was going to save that building, so it’s demolition comes as a huge surprise to me.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      Specifically what I said was, ” the Cal Johnson Building which is being demolished by neglect.” Demolition by neglect is an often used technique to get rid of a building without the fight. Simply let it get into worse and worse shape and eventually you can say, “but it’s too far gone to save.” That was the refrain of the owners of the Pryor Brown Garage once they decided they wanted to get rid of it. I have no knowledge of a demolition request for the Cal Johnson building, but i wouldn’t be surprised to see one. The family that owns it has shown no interest in contributing to downtown’s resurgence by doing anything with their buildings.

  4. I understand your frustration with the demolition of old buildings, in general.

    But with all due respect, I think that in this case, the grassy area is more attractive than the two old buildings.

    They could stick a gazebo and a couple picnic tables in there, and make it a nice spot.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      Ah, but it’s been two years and they haven’t, right? Also, we have plenty of spots for a gazebo and picnic tables – let’s cull out a few parking spaces for a pocket park – but how many 100 buildings can we manufacture? The two old buildings would also have looked much better if David Dewhirst had been allowed to work his magic. Just a different perspective and congenial disagreement is always welcome here.

    • With all due respect, as someone who walks by that empty lot on a daily basis, I’d much rather see buildings. Most of the time they use the lot to hold giant mounds of dirty or heavy equipment. It’s an eyesore.

  5. They didn’t look too great in the first place, but if David Dewhirst wanted to buy them, surely something good could have come from it. Wonder what he’d have done

  6. Thanks for writing this and helping us remember. I’m sad every time I walk by!

  7. Downtown demolitions with false pretense for growth and pretty renderings sadly continue. Very sad to see the church using deception but let’s also not forget Home Federal Bank bringing down a beautiful building on Union Ave for their executive parking lot.

    • Deception is a good word to use in these cases because that’s what it was. While the demolition of those two small buildings of St. John’s on Walnut was sad, particularly since the church and its attorney lied about the plans, the Home Federal case is even more egregious. That demolition and subsequent surface lot created a real gash in the fabric of downtown. Imagine the usability of that frontage on Union, Walnut, and Clinch for retail, and the value of that airspace, today! If it was just an issue of parking, that site could support multiple levels of parking underneath a new structure. Although it’s hard to imagine why, it feels as if Home Federal is thumbing its nose at downtown development. As far as I know, they’ve never offered word one about it.

  8. I wonder if zoning restrictions are holding them back from doing anything? I’m pretty sure they can’t put parking there without a zoning change. The drop off might not be technically allowed either because it connects the road to the parking lot and could be considered parking.

    Maybe someday the church will wise up and sell the property for development.

  9. You’d almost think the decision was made by UTK who seems to doze everything. However I must admit it might eventually look as nice as that lovely Home Federal parking lot where the Sprankle Building used to be.

  10. Thanks for posting this. I still grind my teeth a little every time I pass that space.

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