The Telephone Building – The Second of Two Articles on the Downtown AT&T Building

Existing AT&T Building

(Ed: Today is the second of a two part series by Oren Yarbrough, architectural intern at DIA.)

In the last article, I described the varied and interesting history of the collection of buildings that today makes up the AT&T complex. If you haven’t yet read the first article I strongly suggest you do so you can get a new perspective on this century old building. Now it’s time to share with you my idea on how we can make this massive concrete cube an asset to the downtown community rather than the eyesore it currently is today.

Murals. Knoxville has fully embraced murals as a valuable beautification tool in the last decade, creating vibrant street galleries where a blighted service alley should be, a 100-year-old historical reference to Gay Street & Market Square where a bare concrete wall should be, and graphic reminders of our musical & artistic past where many a blank party wall was exposed from demolition years ago. Individuals and groups alike, have taken it upon themselves to create beauty in this city in some of the most interesting and forgotten of places.

Walnut Street Garage Photos

Knoxville has managed to make street art and murals an asset for the city, both in terms of aesthetic value and tourism. It has now become a common occurrence to see groups of people walking down Armstrong Alley to see the curated graffiti and pose for a picture or two. A year ago, the last thing my sister wanted to do before she flew back to California was pose for a picture with me in front of the massive Visit Knoxville mural on the 300 block of Gay Street. The creation of pieces of art in some of these locations around the city draws people to locations that the public would be otherwise deem unattractive.

Armstrong Art Alley

Knoxville Visitor’s Center Mural

It’s my belief that painting the exterior of the AT&T Building is no different than painting Armstrong Alley or placing massive prints on the Walnut Street Garage, aside from the scale being a particularly larger goal to tackle. The good news is, we wouldn’t be the first city to try painting our old concrete cube with pretty images in an effort to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood.

Built in the early 1980’s in a declining neighborhood on the edge of downtown, made up of large concrete panels & towering over the surrounding streetscape, Chattanooga has an almost identical AT&T building as Knoxville. Years ago, city run group Public Art Chattanooga, teamed up with AT&T, The Lyndhurst Foundation, & Benwood Foundation to begin an effort to beautify the Historic M.L. King neighborhood in Chattanooga. The centerpiece of this community beautification effort became a reality with the completion of a 42,000-square foot mural, one of the largest of its kind in the US, that wraps the entire façade of the still functioning AT&T Building.

Chattanooga AT&T Mural

Chattanooga AT&T Mural Aerial View

The mural, titled “The M.L. King Mural: We Will Not Be Satisfied Until”, is a professionally designed and created depiction of Chattanooga citizens from all backgrounds in poses that reflect some of the most famous lines of Dr.King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The cost of the mural came in at around 200 thousand dollars and the artist, Meg Saligman, worked on it with assistance from local artists for over a year and a half between planning and implementation.

Chattanooga AT&T Mural

Chattanooga AT&T Mural

Chattanooga AT&T Mural

Chattanooga’s MLK Mural is gorgeous for its artistic, social, and architectural merits & stands now as an icon for the neighborhood it rests in. The deep cultural influence and historical background of the MLK Neighborhood played a massive part for the implementation of the mural and Knoxville’s AT&T Building will never have that same connection to utilize or draw from.  What Knoxville does have to it’s benefit is the strategic location of the AT&T building in proximity to many different important roadways passing through the downtown area. Having the AT&T Building almost always within eyesight from the North end of the downtown core, something once seen as a net negative, is a major factor in advocating for this building to be clad with something useful and artistic.

Chattanooga AT&T Mural

The biggest hurdles in getting a mural on the AT&T Building are approval by the owner and securing the necessary funding to complete the design and creation of the installation. Chattanooga’s MLK Mural proves to us that AT&T’s local Tennessee offices are willing to work with our cities in an effort to beautify blighted areas by decorating their structures. The fact that the immediate neighborhoods off Depot, Magnolia, Broadway, & Central are all starting to attract new retail and residential development makes owner approval seem a more likely possibility now than years ago.

Getting funding for a project of this size will be daunting and honestly all I can do in this article is just throw out some ideas and hope that it gets the necessary conversations started. The actual real decisions for something of the scale and magnitude of the AT&T building would require many players, including the city of Knoxville. One idea for funding could be the request of a grant for beautification from the city, state, or federal government.

Similar to Chattanooga, organizers could team up with private donors and foundations to try and secure a majority of funding for the mural. My initial thoughts would be that the city should have a vested interest in the creation and design of the murals since they will be so highly visible to both residents and tourists alike. I imagine the design, should the city choose to accept a part in the process, would operate a bit like a semi-permanent advertisement for the city & greater geographical area.

Existing AT&T Building

Knoxville is trying to increase its tourism numbers in the region and I believe that a large-scale mural in this location could operate much in the same way as other murals around downtown by providing a slight nod to the Knoxville of the past while also embracing something visitors might find unique and attractive about the present. I like the idea of keeping the design simple and safe while also proudly owning up on positive things that Knoxvillian’s universally declare about the city today.

Knoxville Visitor’s Center Mural


I have done some quick Photoshop exercises to try and give you an image of what the AT&T Building could become and what it could give back to the city. Take what I have created with a grain of salt since this is just my hurried attempt to depict something I think was attractive that projects a positive Knoxville image.

Mural from North Broadway

Mural from Depot

Mural from Interstate

Mural from Jackson

Mural from Gay Street

It is my hope that after reading of the history of Knoxville’s “Telephone Building” you were given a new perspective and are proud of the architectural connections this structure shares with other great historic places around the south. It is also my hope that after reading about the real-life actions in Chattanooga, how a community took a similar structure in a similar location of stagnation and urban decay and transformed it into a landmark and an icon to be proud of for decades to come, that you see the potential our Telephone Building could have towards the betterment of a currently blighted portion of downtown.

I hope that all of the readers who find this idea interesting show their support for moving forward with a grassroots effort to put murals on the AT&T Building. Knoxville is expanding and revitalizing neighborhoods that have been stagnant for decades and we have a whole lot to be proud of with our efforts. I think it’s also time to be proud of the Telephone Building again.


  1. What a great idea!

  2. I am just wondering why the ATT building is being targeted? There are so many other buildings that are UGLY downtown and could use an overhaul. Not to mention the side of the building you are looking to overhaul is not even the most ugly part of the building. Honestly, the mural looks like more of a huge sore thumb than the building. ATT agreed at one time to tear down the older parts of the building but Knoxville would not let them because they said it was historical.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      The newer parts are the only parts being discussed here for murals. It is tall, windowless and a shear surface located immediately next to our most traveled spot – the interstate. That’s why. I’m not sure which downtown building you would say comes close to all those problems. Which side of the building is worse? And I’d love to know when AT&T agreed to tear down part of the building. The older part of the building *is* the pretty and historical part of the building. Did you read the first article?

      • I did read the first article. Look around downtown and you will see buildings looking so much worse. For instance, Knox Rail Salvage buildings. The TVA building doesn’t look much different than the ATT building. To me, it seems like someone found out about ATT having a mural put on another building and now they want to push it for Knoxville. Murals are nice and pretty but not for a corporate building. That becomes tacky and honestly unprofessional. It was said that the old side is historic, so It wasn’t to be torn down.

        • Oren Yarbrough says

          Their are some significant difference between other “eyesore” buildings downtown and the AT&T Building. The TVA Building has the potential to be renovated by its current or future tenant and upgraded on the outside, so the free market can kind of dictate that development. The Knox Rail Salvage building that is older has the potential to be purchased, redeveloped, or restored by it’s current tenant or a future one. Part of the Knox Rail Salvage has recently been purchased by Randy Boyd and will likely be redeveloped in the future, rumors suggest even as the new baseball stadium.
          The key difference with the AT&T building is the massive size, lack of windows, lack of a component that actually engages the community (retail or even pedestrian access), and the likelihood that it wont be going anywhere anytime soon.
          Yes, I researched the other AT&T Building in Chattanooga and was inspired to see how the murals aided in transforming the surrounding neighborhood. I don’t think its a bad thing to see how something is successful in addressing an issue in one location and wonder how it can be applied to a new one. I also think the murals in Chattanooga aren’t tacky and look quite beautiful. I really am glad you commented though, because I know an idea like this isn’t always going to have fans and it’s good to hear the other side.

  3. I don’t disagree with your ideas and I enjoy murals very much.Murals are expensive, time consuming, labor intensive and not maintenance free. Consider the Knoxville Music History Mural which had decorated the old city since 2000, and was eradicated just last year. The “blight” on our city of the AT&T Building is nothing compared to the blight of the homeless living on the sidewalks in front of this building. I’m WELL aware this is a totally unrelated matter, and a subject for another day. But mercy, unless you are looking at this building from the interstate or viaduct only, a mural is accomplishing nothing. It’s like a bandaid on something that needs hundreds of stitches! I’m not convinced you will print this and I’m surprised no one else has mentioned it.

  4. Thanks so much for starting this conversation. I am so energized by your ideas and so appreciate the research and willingness to throw the idea out to us. I would love to see an opportunity like this further community dialogue through aesthetic experience. I believe the vision for this building should take into consideration multiple facets of the needs and hopes for our city, letting the content, context, architecture, materials, and process of making be an integral part of the final outcome. We’d be short changing all of us if we merely use paint to cover up a subjectively ugly eyesore. What if we allow artists to speak into the creative fabric of our city? What if we allow the product to be a collaboration between the folks who live around the building, our poets, architects, developers, and artists? What if we introduce a playful application of sustainable architectural coatings? What might that look like? What do we need and want more than the short-sited gains of not-ugly? I believe decisions like these are among the many thresholds where we can choose to let Knoxville further become her most-true and beautiful self, in the deepest sense of that word. Perhaps the best solution is a painted mural that is light-hearted and simple, that sounds lovely, but let’s not be flippant or overly transactional with arriving at that point. Excited to reimagine with y’all,

  5. Just curious — is there a sign somewhere that calls the the Artists’ Alley “Armstrong Alley”? I’ve understood it to be “Strong Alley” for some time, which is a perfectly fine Knoxville-related name, since the Strongs were here about as long as anyone (think Sophronia Strong Hall, or Rush Strong School, or alderman Rush Strong Hazen). There’s also one old map from 1903 that labels it “Damfino Alley,” though I haven’t found that reference anywhere else. I’m not sure where “Armstrong Alley” comes from other than just an error, though I may be wrong.

    I feel that preserving history also includes preserving old name references, rather than just haphazardly changing them because it’s too much effort to remember where they came from. (Unrelated historic name as an example — the name for Lovell Road derives from the settlement of Loveville, which is immensely more charming, but with that understanding of the derivation at least comes some of that history.)

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says

      The furthest reference back I could find to the alley on this blog was 2012. It was the early point in the artists’ efforts there. I referenced both names because I’d heard both. As a comment on that blog stated, there are deep connections to both names in Knoxville history, so I mentioned both because I’d heard them. It’s a question best for Jack Neely who may have written about it with Metro Pulse, but those articles are no longer available online. Here’s the original article from 2012:

    • Oren Yarbrough says

      Jerboa, you bring up an interesting topic that is common for many cities with any age to them. The amount of streets that have changed names in downtown Knoxville in the last 150 years is astounding. One example of street name changing that was easily explainable happened around 100 years ago when Asylum Street, named after the old “Deaf and Dumb Asylum” which had just been purchased for the new City Hall & now houses the Duncan Law School, became a term that was no longer acceptable (the school also had moved to Island Home). Asylum Street West of Market Square became Western Avenue and eventually was rerouted to meet up with Summit during World’s Fair Era. Asylum East of Market was changed to Wall Avenue. The old portion of Western Avenue that went to downtown before Summit was constructed is still a road we use, but for a different name to remove confusion. The current name of the portion of Asylum Street that became Western between Walnut & Locust Streets is now known as Summer Place, which is the name of the street that was one half block to the north where Summit Hill sits. The older garage at Summit and Walnut is named Summer Place after this old road, but the new Summer Place road to the south is the side street many people use to get from Locust to Market Square garage.
      This is just one example of one road that changed names a whole lot in the past. Most of the reasoning for these changes is because it just makes sense at the given moment. I think it adds a layer of mystery and fun to the city to have these secret second names.
      Fun Fact: Front street to Clinch Street running East West were originally just numbered streets and later changed to named streets as the city expanded north. Nashville did the opposite and changed their streets from named streets to numbered streets running North South. The logic was to use the river as a wayfinding tool based on how many blocks you were from it.

  6. On a related note, the Bill Samson-funded soccer fields on the North side of Fort Sanders did a lot to improve the aesthetics on the western approach to downtown. The fields actually make Knoxville look a bit more healthy and athletic than we probably are.

  7. My 19yo son presented the idea of a mural on that building a while back. If this is something that’s going to happen, he has a pretty good plan already laid out and would like to be involved.

  8. bob thompson says

    AT&T probably going to be there a while, and the homeless shelter too. Might be interesting to somehow involve some homeless people in a mural project.

  9. I believe the AT&T building is a prime candidate for “mural enhancement” lets call it. The biggest obstacle I foresee will be deciding on the style of artwork, and the artwork itself. Should it be historical? Visionary? Contemporary? Should it depict people or nature? Architecture or events? Select the wrong style or artwork and it will be a bigger eyesore than it currently is. Choose carefully Knoxville.

    • I’ll second that! Those Denver murals (see the link in a post below) are absolutely AWESOME and set a standard against which we might judge our local endeavors here. And you’re right — a poorly chosen subject, poor design, and/or poor rendering could very well be worse than what we have now. If we go this route, I hope we’ll set some basic parameters as to subject or content and then put it out to PROFESSIONAL muralists in a widely advertized design competition. That location is seen by thousands of people a day who are simply passing us by — let’s give them a really good reason to stop and take a look.

    • Oren Yarbrough says

      I agree with you wholeheartedly. My photoshop images I made for this article are just a quick representation of what it could be as one example of literally hundreds of possibilities. I naturally love the idea of playing up on the history and significance of trains with the prosperity and growth of Knoxville into what it is today. The problem with playing up our history in murals is that we run the risk of going to far and making it seem like Knoxville’s best days are behind her and that we are just making do with what we have now. A balance of pride in our past and excitement for our future will be key for whatever designs are made. Thanks for commenting!

  10. I think that raising $100,000 or more from private sources would not be difficult for a civic project that makes this kind of visual impact. I look forward to the Kickstarter campaign …

  11. It’s unlikely that the critical, sensitive systems and equipment housed in this structure will be moved any time soon, if ever. Central location and years of infrastructure connection would make this highly unlikely. Perhaps someone from AT&T could provide an opinion as to feasibility?

    I also don’t see a viable solution based on somehow enhancing what is a truly ugly facade, at least for the blocky, fortress like structure that is the largest piece. I like the mural idea. Perhaps, we could work to enhance the parts of the building that are not by design fortress-like and use murals to cover the hideous parts.

    Something really needs to be done. I would donate to a fund started for this purpose if the City and AT&T get behind the effort. No doubt others in the community would as well.

    Thanks for drawing attention to the possibilities.

    • I’m glad to see so much discussion on this issue. If ATT decides that they’re ready and willing to take the leap, it should be carried through professionally. Competitions can be good, but as mentioned by several people here, the finished product needs to be something we can all be proud of, so we need to be careful about these decisions. It also needs to last and be cared for. Applied correctly and professionally we can look forward to having this for a long time to come. The subject needs to stand the test of time and be a representation that will still resonate with the people of this region going decades forward, while also inviting the interest of people outside the region. Knoxville is becoming a great destination city. A large and beautiful mural can really enhance our “Scruffy Little City”.

  12. Betsy Martin says

    Certainly wiser planners, etc., than I should speak into this. However, revealing the heart and light of a city through art — in this case murals — is always a wise and forward-thinking way to reveal the vibrancy and history of its citizens. An example that I’m aware of is Denver, CO, which has (and is) strategically doing so. Many references are available; here’s one:

  13. Nice thoughts Oren, its great to have someone thinking and writing about this building. Murals are a creative way to make the best of a bad situation here, but long term I feel that the truth of the matter will shine through: we are trying to make an eyesore on our city a little “less bad”. In the process of doing that, we may be bringing more attention to a building that people may just look past right now.

    My hopes are that economic forces will eventually do their work; as the city expansion continues north, the land that the AT&T building sits on will become too valuable to be taken up by a windowless building that houses utility infrastructure. AT&T will decide to sell off the building because they can make a profit and buy a less expensive place at a less desirable part of town, and a preservation-minded developer in our city may buy the building and restore it to the pre-AT&T expansion.

    One can hope, at least. Again, thanks for the new perspective on this, its valuable to have someone providing ideas on bettering our city!

    • Oren Yarbrough says

      Thanks Andrew for the compliment and also Thank You for taking the time to leave a comment. I have heard from a few different sources that work with the AT&T Center that their is hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the inside of this building and they have no intentions of leaving for the immediate future; this is why I think they would be willing to work with the city in any efforts we make to beautify the structure. I love the idea to sell off maybe the older portions of the building and use the rest of the empty block to build new offices and maybe as a part of that a new cladding for the big cube, but I don’t think we will see the building vacated or torn down anytime soon. Maybe someone who works there can add more to this for clarity.

  14. I agree that murals could be a great solution. The ATT building in Chattanooga looks beautiful and is another art project that has helped raise Chattanooga above other cities in our region. I’ve had conversations about this particular building and idea with other visionaries in the past. Maybe we’ve finally reached the time when it could become a very real possibility. Thank you for bringing this idea out in the open again!

    • What other cities are you referring to exactly? Because Chattanooga certainly hasn’t been “raised above” Knoxville. They have fast internet, a baseball stadium and an aquarium, but our city is still bigger and has more to offer. But I digress. Oren, I think your idea to beautify the AT&T building is brilliant. I don’t know how I feel about the Visit Knoxville logo itself appearing so boldly on the building (particularly if they decide to rebrand themselves again,) because that feels like an “in your face” advertisement, but I realize that your rendering is just conceptual. A unique, striking mural on that building, plus the ongoing construction of Regas Square would bring tremendous attention to our Downtown from both sides of the interstate. Many of the thousands of cars going west on I-40 may not even realize they’re passing our downtown, and this would change things. Very well thought out Oren. I hope your vision comes true.

  15. Your renderings are the perfect solution for the worst structure embedded in our cityscape. City fathers, sit up and take notice! Every visitor I’ve had in Knoxville has marvelled at how such a dismal building evolved against the backdrop of the rest of the city and Smoky Mountains.

    • Kenneth M. Moffett says

      I have to disagree that full-body mural treatment should be the fate of this building. Some time back I posted a message expressing concern about the proliferation of wall murals in Knoxville, and was roundly disagreed with. I hasten to clarify: wall murals can be vigorous urban enhancements when appropriate in their context, but as with so many things, moderation should be the key. Too great a proliferation of wall murals will result in something of a two-dimensional stage-set quality, subtly signaling a settling for the expedient and the inexpensive in urban development choices.

      The AT&T Building is good background architecture! Careful enhancement and restoration of its facades should be the goal rather than painting them out. The microwave towers are the building’s most distinctive feature, and their restoration, with the possible consideration of the addition of skyline signage, should be the focus of efforts to add distinction to the building. In the near future the Regas Square development will add its mid-rise profile to the immediate vicinity, and one hopes and expects that other mid-rise developments nearby will follow, further integrating the AT&T Building into its urban setting.

      • Yes. And one man’s art is another man’s eyesore.

      • Oren Yarbrough says

        I agree with you Kenneth to some extent on this issue. I happen to be a big fan of murals and love the added context they give a city, but agree they can detract from the overall aesthetic in high doses. I think the AT&T building is a good example of when a mural could and should be used to enhance the views of the city. I, as do many other Knoxvillians, think of the broad blank wall of the AT&T building as an empty billboard waiting to be filled with something greeting visitors to the city.
        I must say that I definitely do agree with you that as citizens we musn’t be afraid to allow for older styles of buildings that may currently be deemed “unattractive” be torn down or dramatically altered because of popular opinion. In the 1950’s & 60’s it was also in fashion to cover up or tear down all of the turn of the century architecture in Knoxville and some of the most important structures this city has ever built are no longer with us because of that. When I think of a downtown structure that’s deemed unattractive by some, but still valuable to the overall context of the city, I think of the recently sold Conley Tower or Summit Towers. I think the AT&T is important and worth keeping, but I also think that a mural would be a good design option for the structure.

      • I agree with most of what Kenneth has to say. I think it would be a great move to restore the older portions of the building to their original state. A mural might be appropriate for the large “ugly” part of the building, but I think it would be better to go with something a bit more edgy and modern for that portion and avoid the dated “commissioned art” feel that many murals (the stage-set type you refer to) still aim for. In any case, hopefully infill will continue to pop up in that part of the city.

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