Exploring One of Gay Street’s Most Beautiful and Interesting Buildings: The Mechanics Bank and Trust Building

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

If you’ve slowed down a bit to consider the various buildings lining Gay Street, you’ve no doubt noticed 612 South Gay. The inscription on the front gives its name: The Mechanics Bank and Trust Building. Even that is an interesting point: Not all buildings have their names inscribed on the front, but they virtually all have names, formal, informal or both. Generally the name references the original use of the building, an important period in its history or its current occupants or owners.

Beyond its name, the facade is one of the most striking along the street. Originally built in 1907 as a three-story building, it was later expanded by two floors in 1923. The facade is one of several marble facades along a street where the general expectation is brick.

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Foyer of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Foyer of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

The locally quarried marble is fashioned in the “Second Renaissance Revival,” style (which is Italian for ornate and pretty). It’s interesting to study the front of the building and imagine it without the top two floors. It would be attractive, but nearly as stunning. In 1983 the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Originally a bank, as you might suspect, it has been a bank for much of its history. In succession after the Mechanics Bank and Trust, it became Union Bank, Hamilton Bank and, finally, City and County Bank before the collapse of the Butcher empire.

Inner Workings of the Safe, Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Inner Workings of the Safe, Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Original Night Deposit, Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Original Night Deposit, Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

That said, it has also hosted a number of other businesses including WROL, an early Knoxville radio station which featured Cas Walker as one of its hosts and included the Everly Brothers (in their first radio appearances) among its performers. The station later evolved into WATE television which had studios in the building. In the 1930s the building listed a number of lawyers among its tenants, as well as the Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission and the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce. The building can be spotted as an extra in the movie, “October Skies,” from the book Rocket Boys.

The strongest historical connection to the spot actually rests with the story which happened just outside its doors and was forever immortalized by Mark Twain in his book, Life on the Mississippi. In October 1882, a time when the Mechanics National Bank occupied the address in an older building, the bank president, Thomas O’Connor, was shot and killed by Joseph Mabry in a shoot out that also left Mabry and his son dead in the street.

Unfinished floors of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Unfinished floors of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Unfinished floors of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Unfinished floors of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

In recent years the building has been home to two law offices and the Revenue Recovery Corporation. The call center collection agency left downtown in 2012 citing a lack of parking. At the time it seemed like a setback to downtown in some respects. They occupied floors two through four, while law offices occupied the other floors. The top floor is owned by Wanda Sobieski and is home to Sobieski, Messer and Elledge. That beautiful floor has its own amazing story, which I wrote in 2014. You can read here.

The ground floor is home to the law offices of married couple Doug Toppenberg and Elaine Burke. Toppenberg bought the floor in 1994 when all of downtown was a very different place. That floor, as you can see from the photographs is one of the most beautiful spaces in downtown. The former bank lobby, it features massively high ceilings, chandeliers, elaborate decorative columns and a striking mezzanine.

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

The former home of Revenue Recovery Corporation has remained empty. Offered for auction in 2013, the sellers did not get what they felt was an acceptable offer. At the end of 2014, Toppenberg and Burke purchased the vacant floors – two through four with the idea of turning each floor into single, very large condos built to the specifications of buyers.

Each of the middle three floors include about 3,650 square feet and feature full-span concrete beams, allowing for the entire floor to remain open. The floors feature large windows with various views including the Arcade and Tombras Buildings to the south. Each of the middle floors would require installation of infrastructure to become homes, but the building is zoned mixed use, so they could also be offices.

Mezzanine Level, Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Mezzanine Level, Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Mezzanine Level, Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Mezzanine Level, Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Toppenberg and Burke have decided the time has come for them to move on and they are offering the first four floors – including their offices, the former bank lobby, for purchase. The floors, including the mezzanine, include 16,300 square feet of space, and they are marketing the property for $2.5 million. Interested? Melinda Grimac with Alliance Sotheby’s is marketing the property.

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

Ground Floor of the Mechanics Bank and Trust Building, 612 South Gay Street, Knoxville, January 2018

As the supply of not-completely-developed historic downtown buildings shrinks, there will be fewer listings like this one possible. In coming days I’ll highlight other unique buildings available for purchase with their own significance and backstories. Stay tuned.

Comments

  1. ‘October Sky’ is a good movie, worth checking out:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0132477/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

  2. Laura Smith says

    Aren’t there bullet holes still visible from the Mabry shooting?

  3. Do tell more of WATE television in that bldg. Have never heard that. I understood they started out on Sharps Ridge, moved to the Petree Florist bldg., then Greystone. Any pictures/information would be appreciated.

  4. Oren Yarbrough says

    As a side note for anyone interested in taking a look, I have a link below to a McClung Historic Collection photo of the Banker’s Trust Building from the early 1920’s before the Burwell Building was expanded and the Tennessee Theatre added in the rear of the block. Note the amazing detailing on the building immediately to the North of the Banker’s Trust Building. It looks like this is the same structure today, but sadly with all the massive cut stone removed from the facade. Banker’s Trust looks almost the exact same though!
    http://cmdc.knoxlib.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p265301coll7/id/1105/rec/8

  5. The ground level of this building is absolutely gorgeous! The detailing in the ceiling and the mezzanine are stunning and I would venture to say date back to at least the 1920’s considering the similarities they have with detailing in the Andrew Johnson that was built around the same time the upper floors were added to this structure. Is the 16,000 sq ft for all three floors together? Is there an option to divide up the floors for separate development still? The completely open floor plate is such a rare feature in older urban buildings. As an example, the Farragut Hyatt is practically a forest of columns that caused many a headache for the design and construction teams to work out. What is the floor to floor height for the floors considering utilities and plumbing will likely need to be added in some locations? Great Job giving us all a history of the building! Loved it!

    • Oren…..Thanks for posting the photo link! It’s fascinating to see the past use and activity downtown! The 16,000+sf includes floors 1-4. As you can see from the photo, the main floor has a large rear mezzanine that bumps that sq ft up to approximately 5080sf. Floors 2-4 are full span concrete and are zoned C2/D1, offering a wonderful open concept option for either/both commercial and residential buildouts. Floors 1-4 are currently offered as an Investor’s Package for $2.5M for the 16,000+sf. The floors could be subdivided, but the current owners envision full floor high end residential use.

    • Bottom of the beams look to be a foot higher than the door frames. So my guess is 10’ ceiling between the beams and 8’ at the bottom.

  6. Anita Armes says

    Wow, just wow! So fascinating to me, these old buildings, how can anyone not want to know the history and appreciate them! Thanks for all the pics and info.

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