City Council Votes to Impose Historic Protection on Cal Johnson Building

Cal Johnson Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Cal Johnson Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

City Council meetings sometimes provide a bit of drama and such was the case last night when it considered placing the Cal Johnson Building under historic zoning or H1 protection. Essentially, this means it cannot be easily demolished by current or future owners. It also typically means that redevelopment must follow sometimes difficult and involved regulations dictated by the Department of Interior for any renovations, restoration or alterations. The city says they have agreed to allow the current owners, the Dance family, to follow only local Downtown Design Review Board guidelines, but the family says the city may not have that authority.

What’s at stake is a building that has been written about extensively by Jack Neely both when Mayor Rogero proposed the H1 protection and more recently when the Metropolitan Planning Commission declined to accept that proposal. That threw the question to the City Council and set the stage for the drama that unfolded as they discussed a relatively nondescript, but historically significant building which is currently located near Commerce Street just across from Marble Alley.

City Council Meeting, Knoxville, July 2016

City Council Meeting, Knoxville, July 2016

Bill Lyons, Deputy to the Mayor, developer David Dewhirst and local historian and writer Robert Booker spoke on behalf of adding the H1 protection. Dr. Lyons detailed a decade of discussions with the Dance family which have not resulted in improvement to the property. He noted that H1 desgination would not prevent the family from developing the building as they now say they wish to do and David Dewhirst suggested that H1 designation can help a developer by making historic tax credits more likely. Bob Booker detailed the life of Cal Johnson who moved from slave to multi-business owner and noted that virtually every other building associated with African American history in the city has been demolished.

Jed Dance, current patriarch of the family that owns the building, spoke against the overlay. His grandfather bought the buildings in front of the Cal Johnson building in 1948 which, together, are the Bacon and Company offices and warehouses. They bought the Cal Johnson Building in 1976 and he said they have paid taxes and are, “all about saving buildings.” He noted that the family had fought the city twice during those years when the city wanted to demolish the building. He also said they had complied when the city asked them to board up missing windows and when a tour by Kim Trent of Knox Heritage revealed a hole in the roof, they repaired it.

Jed Dance and Arthur Seymour, Jr., City Council Meeting, Knoxville, July 2016

Jed Dance and Arthur Seymour, Jr., City Council Meeting, Knoxville, July 2016

He went on to say the family is ready to redevelop the building or at least improve it and to look for someone to lease it, but that with the complications imposed by an H1 designation it would be more difficult. He said they “have plans and are ready to spend the money,” saying that the last decade they have been thwarted by the recession and then his father’s death in 2013 which resulted in a complicated estate situation only resolved last year.

Arthur Seymour, Jr., a local attorney I last wrote about when he argued passionately for the right of St. John’s Episcopal to demolish two ninety-year-old buildings, echoed the sentiment that this family, not the city has preserved this building. He pointed out that both his boyhood neighborhood and that of Bob Booker had been demolished by the city saying, “the only talk of tearing the building down over the years has been from the city.” Noting there is no evidence they will tear it down and that now that it is more accessible, they will “do something.”

Finally, John King, local attorney, spoke for the family saying “Plans have been submitted to the Downtown Design Review Board and unless this complication is added we will move forward.” He said the guideline question puts the family in the position of not knowing what might be required, concluding, “You have someone who has a historic record of preserving the building.” Bill Lyons responded that only local guidelines would apply and that all of Market Square had been developed under H1 overlay.

Discussion followed in which councilman Nick Della Volpe questioned why the overlay is necessary if the family says they intend to redevelop, suggesting there didn’t need to be more extensive government intrusion. Mayor Rogero responded that it would prevent a wrecking ball from being used now or in the future. A disagreement ensued as to whether the federal regulations may be waived. Finbarr Saunders noted the building has been on Knox Heritage’s “Fragile 15” for years and this would help preserve it, observing he’d been in the building talking to the family as far back as 2004.

Cal Johnson Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Councilman George Wallace said the family should be given additional time to complete their plans. Councilman Duane Grieve countered that the overlay is not an additional burden and that as one of the only downtown structures reflective of the African American experience, it should be protected. He went further to say additional buildings should be similarly protected. Councilwoman Palmer said flexibility hadn’t been offered other building owners and that sometimes plans go awry, so the building should be protected.

In the end the council voted in favor of the overlay by a vote of six to two, with Wallace and Della Volpe voting against the measure and Marshall Stair recusing himself because he works with Mr. King. It will have to be reviewed in two weeks and passed on a second reading. Outside the meeting Mr. Dance told me they still plan to fight it and will have to evaluate the next step. Mr. King said he is, “always concerned when people want to create something that is there is perpetuity. There may come a time when a historic marker would better serve to remember him than to save the building.” He thought for a moment searching for the right word, then said such people are, “presumptuous.”

Essentially, the city is asking the Dance family to trust them that the more stringent requirements of federal regulation will not be imposed and the Dance family is asking that the city trust them that the building will be restored without the potentially cumbersome regulation. The problem seems to be that, though everyone was civil in their disagreements, there is little trust.

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

While it wasn’t mentioned in the discussion, H1 protection not only prevents active demolition, but demolition by neglect can be stopped by the government. Demolition by neglect is what has been happening to the building for many years. The fact that the owners have to be told – according to Mr. Dance – when they have a hole in the roof or windows need to be boarded illustrates the fact. More than a decade has passed with the city requesting the building be improved and it hasn’t happened. No doubt the family does not want the city to have this power.

Also interesting was the statement by Arthur Seymour, Jr. that they only entity to ever discuss demolition has been the city. This, like a number of statements made by Mr. Seymour during the St. John’s controversy, doesn’t withstand scrutiny. The family themselves told MPC in April that they had intended to demolish the rear third of the building in order to improve truck access, but that turned out to be too expensive. So, very recently, demolition of at least a portion of the building has been discussed by the family.

Finally, there is the physical evidence of the family’s lack of stewardship of their property and the lack of civic responsibility displayed by not only their treatment of the Cal Johnson Building, but of the three buildings comprising Bacon and Company itself. As you can see from the photographs, many windows in all their buildings are boarded and often black trash bags hang out of the space.

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Bacon and Company Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Large swaths of the front facade of Bacon and Company are covered with corrugated fiberglass. Black glass panels added in some recent decade cover a portion of the facade, while another portion had these panels removed exposing the glue underneath and nothing was done to improve the facade. A tree grows from a gutter toward the top. Graffiti is allowed to cover the building without any apparent effort to improve it. And these are not even the buildings under discussion.

With properties that have remained blighted for decades, there is little evidence for the city to build upon to have faith in the family’s future plans. Without the H1 overlay, the family – or the next owner – could request demolition permits and there would be nothing the city could do but watch the buildings be destroyed. The family also, perhaps rightly, fears that if they don’t improve the buildings, the city could take them like it should have taken the McClung Warehouses.

What happens next will be interesting. Will the city back down on the intended overlay? Will the family fight them if they don’t? If the overlay is applied will the family refuse to follow through on any improvements? If so, one might question whether they ever intended to do the improvements from the outset. If they allow the buildings to continue to crumble will the city take further action?

It is very unfortunate that in 2016, with property values escalating rapidly and so many people working in different ways to make our downtown and our city a great place, that we have this issue in our midst. If the family wishes to renovate and restore all their buildings with the level of attention we’ve seen given, for example, the JC Penney Building and the Holston Buildings, I’d be happy for them to stay in the city into the next century.

Cal Johnson Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

Cal Johnson Building, State Street, Knoxville, July 2016

If they aren’t going to participate in the rebirth of our city, but rather are going to enjoy the benefits of increased property values for themselves while hurting the property values of those around them, I’d prefer they leave and allow the building to fall into the hands of someone who would love both the buildings and the city. They’ve made a lot of money for many years selling UT and other apparel. The least they could do is spend some of the largess on their own buildings rather than allowing them to be among the most blighted buildings in the center city.


  1. I walked down State a couple of days ago and noticed that the city has posted an “Unfit for Human Habitation” notice on the Cal Johnson building which I believe requires the owner to make certain improvements within 90 days. I also noticed State is now two way down to Union, which is a good move and one of the better recommendations from the Doentown Mobility Plan.

  2. Chester G. Kilgore says:

    Any development project for which the property owner hires both Mr. Seymour AND Mr. King is hiding big money. The owners have probably spent more on those two attorney’s fees for this case than they have spent on upkeep and repairs to the buildings in question. I have worked with both attorneys in the past and they are Knoxville’s most well connected pro development attorney’s, unless someone with more dollars hires them to oppose the development, that is. The example of the Target in Fountain City is an excellent example of the pro “development at any cost” mind set of many in Knoxville. Just something to think about.

  3. Gregory R. Austin says:

    How anyone who has lived in Knoxville could be against the overlay truly baffles me. We have gone through years of seeing the ruin that neglect has wrought on many of our commercial buildings citywide. Get the two boneheads who voted against this proposal out of office and better yet out of town. Wearing of orange under these circumstances is a real sign by each individual. Boycott orange, save these buildings!

  4. It’s a deliberate strategy of tax evasion. JED Corporation pays about $9,200/year in property taxes to the city for all four of the Summit Hill properties that it owns, with a combined 114,000+/- sf of conditioned space, not including parking sf. And that race assessment goes down every year that they let the buildings deteriorate, even as the average property assessments downtown go up.For comparison, the owners of the Woodruff building pay $9,800/year on just 53,000sf of conditioned space. The Dances have no intention of improving the buildings that they own. They’re executing a calculated strategy to minimize costs right up to the day they sell the buildings for a multimillion payout. It’s Slum Lording 101.

    • E hit the nail on the head. Calculated and ZERO intention of improving the property. Nobody talks about the day in the 1990’s when the back brick on the tall six story building fronting Summit Hill just sheared off.

  5. When I was in architecture school I used to work at Applebee’s on Kingston pike as a host every Sunday. For almost every single Sunday for a number of years the Elder Dance’s (the one mentioned as passing away in the story) would come and eat at the restaurant after church and I gradually became close to them. I had no idea who they were and I loved talking with them and Mr.Dance loved talking about Knoxville and I am a big nerd for history so we got along great. When I was a 3rd year student I had a final studio project where I had to envision a new life for the Cal Johnson building and the adjacent empty lot as a new downtown library complex, keeping the historic structure while giving a blank spot of Gay St a new life.

    In hindsight my own personal design was mildly imposing on Gay St and also rather out of place looking back. I was, at the time, very proud of my work so I would discuss the project with my regular customers at Applebee’s. It was one morning while I was showing pictures of the project to Mr.Dance that he asked me whether this site was at the Cal Johnson building and I said yes and started to explain to him the unique history of the building and he smiled at me and laughed and said “I know all about that building son, I own it”. I was flabbergasted by this collision of my fantasy architecture project and the reality of showing it to the actual owner of the building in question.

    Mr and Mrs Dance were always extremely nice to me and from what I gathered from my time knowing them was that they did in fact believe they were stewards for protecting these downtown buildings from being either destroyed by arson or by a greedy developer. It is easy to be excited about development now in the downtown city center, but as recently as the late 1990’s we were tearing down major structures for developments & prisons & towers that never came to be. The preservationist in me hates to see the sad dilapidated state of these buildings today, but if they had been unoccupied for the last 50 years instead I doubt they would be around today for us to even have this discussion.

    Knoxville has changed. When the Bacon Co moved downtown Knoxville was still considered a massive textile and furniture powerhouse. Major manufacturing has moved away from the older warehouse districts and into the suburban areas outside the city, leaving Bacon & Co to be more like the last vestige of a by gone era. Now the appropriate thing to do is to not hate on and punish the Dance family, but rather attempt to find a way to convince them and reward them by selling these structures and leaving the downtown core. Land-swaps and tax incentives? I am not an expert on these things but I know that we can’t be the first to have this issue and resolve it civilly.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      That is a great story about your interactions with the Dance family. I also agree with your conclusions and do not wish to hate on anyone. Still, it’s important that the condition of the buildings be reported honestly.

    • Lost all respect for Art Seymour, Jr. When Target won battle to build in Ft. City one comment he made was that Target would bring in other stores around it to bring more business to area – only Sonic built. Target now stands out next to Knoxville Center -and a Kroger has taken the place of Target – business around Target did not hold up to scrutiny. Right now there are two pieces of property for sale on Broadway – One is a church and the other is a home, There are hard choices to be made. I know if I own property I have the right to sell it to who I want to even though it means beauty of structure and history about it will go. However, I don’t think you have a right as a property owner to let your property fall into disrepair for any reason like old South High School did.

  6. I think the above should read that the “MPC” declined to accept the Mayor’s proposal for an H1 overlay.

  7. Christopher Eaker says:

    Increased property values are simply a paper asset. You can’t realize any benefit from it unless you sell. All it brings in the interim is higher property taxes. So why, oh why, won’t these people just sell the buildings, realize their profit, and move on? It’s a mystery. My suspicion is they don’t have the financial means to improve them or they would have done it already.

  8. I couldn’t agree more. It’s hard to believe that in 2016 there are still cases like this. It’s difficult to fathome the mentality that this family has. Whatever their reasons, I still believe in personal property rights. But at what point is a person forfeiting their rights by virtue of neglect. My question is, has anyone offered to purchase the lot of buildings from the family? Dewhirst perhaps? And if they were purchased and saved would they merely become expensive lofts? What are some more creative uses for these spaces?

  9. They really should just move their business to the suburbs. Those buildings have massive mixed use potential. Obviously they don’t care about the condition of them.

    • It’s odd that they haven’t cashed in and moved already. They’ve held on like a proper speculator and this market gives them an easy exit strategy.

      Stubbornness in the face of a large payday is inexplicable.

      • Well the dude looks stubborn and crotchety. I can see it.

      • For better or worse, I believe that small stories usually speak volumes about a person or group. In reading here that Knox Heritage had to even *inform* the Dance family of a hole in this building’s roof….well, there you go. I hope the City Council stays the course. Speaking as an occasional Knoxville tourist who’s read up on these properties and favors saving/improving them, I’ve walked around those buildings on a few visits, befuddled and wondering why any business owners of means could be so hubristic as to show visitors such a huge wart on the face of your wonderful downtown. Perhaps Jed Dance would suggest that my opinion doesn’t matter. I feel it does.

  10. What a shame that these buildings continue to deteriorate. They have so much potential and loom large in one of the city’s major gateways. Is it possible to identify the products that this family sells to UT? I would boycott these products as a means of applying pressure on the property owners to do the right thing. Thanks for updating us on recent developments.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says:

      My understanding is that everyone would have to stop wearing UT licensed apparel.

      • Kenneth Moffett says:

        What a complicated mishmash. The owners do have a point about the foolish silver bullet proposals that threatened their property years ago. But this block of buildings remains unimproved and deteriorating (a whole back wall having fallen down awhile back). The comment that a marker might ultimately be better is infuriating. What motivates these owners to do nothing for these handsome and very visible buildings, year after year, while surrounded on all sides by successful redevelopment?

  11. Mary Linda Schwarzbart says:

    Good report on the meeting, past history, and recent disappointin care of this property.

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