The first time I remember discussing the KUB building at 620 S. Gay, was on a walking tour led by Kim Trent. I expressed my distaste for it and she pointed out that it is mid-century modern and that maybe I needed to stretch my thinking a bit. I did. I learned to appreciate mid-century modern architecture a little more, which was aided by the preservation efforts a few years ago of the UT Conference Center, another mid-century modern building I didn’t care for at first.
When the original plans for the restoration of the building were announced a year-and-a-half or so ago, the plan was to keep the green-glazed facade, while expanding or creating more windows. That seemed reasonable and I hoped the additional windows would make it more appealing. The sections of small rocks would be removed and that seemed like a good thing.
Then, last December, the Tombras Group announced their intention to purchase the building and to change the outside. Their move downtown is a great news. I love the quote by Charlie Tombras indicating they used to hide downtown Knoxville when they would bring a recruit to town, safely whisking them between the airport and west Knoxville. He went on to say that downtown is now the primary selling point for recruits and that they want to work in an urban environment, hence the move. But change the facade?
In the months since the initial announcement, the building has been purchased for $2 million and the city has agreed to a 20 year TIF (tax increment financing incentive). Sanders Pace has been retained to develop the design and yesterday that design was approved by the Downtown Design Review Board.
It’s a design likely to spark a good bit of conversation. Not traditional in any way, the new design completely alters the external appearance of the building with an eye toward improved lighting in the dark recesses of the building and improved energy efficiency. A new rooftop deck will replace the mechanical structure currently visible on top of the building. To quote the presentation by Sanders Pace, “The primary material palette consists of a rainscreen panel system and a brick veneer. A metal panel system provides an accent to these materials.”
It’s important to note that the “KUB building” is really two buildings which were merged at some point. Further, the building in its present form is the fourth iteration of a facade that has fronted the building. Over the years, the building has incorporated the previous versions, leaving some very odd clusters of columns, for example, inside the southwest corner of the building, which explains why there are no windows planned for that corner in the new design.
The conversation among the design professionals and architects on the Downtown Design Review Board was interesting. A couple of members expressed some support for the glazed brick, while also expressing enthusiasm for the new design.
The presentation of the older images was helpful in that they illuminated the fact that this building has had each generation place a new design stamp at that address – except for the generation in which downtown was being abandoned. The new design clearly speaks to a modern aesthetic, while including elements which tie it to nearby buildings and Gay Street generally. Marleen Davis summed up the ultimate conclusion of the group succinctly when she said, referring to the building, “new chapter, new statement.”
There are two potential retail spaces fronting Gay Street. Downtown design guidelines call for buildings on the street-level to engage pedestrians. The current plans include a coffee shop on the corner which will be open to the public. The other spot – in the smaller of the two buildings – has not been planned at this point, though expansion of the company’s need for space was mentioned and it seemed less likely to include a commercial business other than the Tombras Group.
Projected costs for the renovation of the building is in the $8 million range. Including the purchase expense, the project represents a $10 million investment in downtown. The Tombras Group currently has about 170 employees and expects to grow to around 200 in the near future. The current projected timeline has construction starting in July with a completion date in late summer of 2017.
If you’d like to read the architectural details, you’ll find them here.